Batting for apartheid

10 January 2010 - 00:50 By Peter May and Tristan Holme

Early in 1990, England cricket captain Mike Gatting and his team began one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the game: the seventh rebel tour of South Africa. The sad story of that tour is told by Peter May and Tristan Holme in the book The Rebel Tours: Cricket’s Crisis of Conscience

For Mike Gatting, the justification was apparently quite simple. "I do not see myself as a traitor, because I am going off to earn a living by playing cricket in South Africa," he said.

"I think I've been a loyal person. I've given a lot of my life to cricket. It's time for me to put my family first."

It was an explanation the cricket world had heard before. Except that this time, ahead of the seventh rebel tour to South Africa, the English captain's words rang particularly hollow.

By now it was common knowledge that the £200000 Gatting would take home to his family was coming not from corporate sponsorship, but from the apartheid government. The democratic rights he was so eager to claim were exactly the ones being denied to the majority of people who effectively paid his salary.

Neither this nor the predetermined three-year ban from the International Cricket Council would deter Gatting's 16-man touring party. Between 1982 and 1987 the South African Cricket Union had lured English, Sri Lankan, West Indian and Australian teams to the republic in their bid to keep spectator interest in the game alive. All six tours had created controversy - especially those involving the West Indies and Sri Lanka, whose players enjoyed "honorary white" status - but time had healed most wounds and some participants found themselves back in their national colours.

Yet the assumption that the same rules applied in July 1989, when the tour was organised, was, quite simply, wrong.

In January, President PW Botha had suffered a stroke and been replaced by FW de Klerk, who had surprised everyone with a programme of reforms.

Registered political protests became legal in September, making the January 1990 tour a particular target. As had been the case so often over the previous two decades, cricket found itself on the front line in the battle against apartheid.

Protesters met the tourists at Jan Smuts Airport, but the demonstration was violently quashed because it was without the necessary permit from the government. Instead of being discouraged by the sight of the clash, Gatting insisted his side would only reconsider if their lives became endangered.

An editorial in The Sowetan pointed out the flaw in such a statement: "Well, it has become dangerous, and for the lives of our people. As happened at the airport on Friday, the police will be taking strong action against protesters. We know our police much better than Gatting and his greedy band of mercenaries."

The first tour match was moved from East London to Kimberley to escape the United Democratic Front, but news of the switch was leaked. As the game began, a stand-off between police and protesters threatened violence outside the ground. Appreciating the gravity of the situation, SA Cricket Union chief Ali Bacher took the decision to personally arrange a permit for the demonstrators.

Lives were almost certainly saved, but it was clear that anger built up over the first six tours was now being unleashed with interest on the seventh. Somehow, Gatting's incomprehension remained. "As far as I'm concerned there were a few people singing and dancing and that's it," he declared.

The English cricketers soon found themselves being denied service by black waiters and kitchen staff, a form of activism which Gatting met in one instance by going into the kitchen to cook steaks for himself.

However, the captain's belligerence had also led to a promise that he would acknowledge any legitimate protest petitions, and in Bloemfontein he was cleverly ambushed. Police had already used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse another crowd outside the ground when Gatting was called to receive a petition. As he did so in front of the press, the shirt of a petitioner, John Sogoneco, was dramatically pulled up to reveal buckshot wounds.

Although they were the result of recent police action, they had not been acquired at the cricket, and so Gatting's response was unsympathetic. "Then it has nothing to do with us," he blustered. "We can't be held responsible for anything that happens away from the ground."

The next morning perhaps proved just how right he was, as De Klerk lifted restrictions on all black political parties and confirmed that Nelson Mandela would be released in the near future. Ian Wooldridge wrote in the Daily Mail: "Mike Gatting finds himself in the wrong place at the very wrong time."

Nevertheless, the tour proceeded to Pietermaritzburg, where its absurdity was to reach an incredible crescendo. At tea on day one, word came through that another petition awaited Gatting and tour manager David Graveney and, as they exited the turnstiles, they were confronted by a crowd chanting: "Gatting go home! Gatting go home!"

A protest representative explained that the petition was to be presented to Gatting on a small platform in the crowd, surrounded by 5000 protesters. Bacher's face betrayed a genuine fear for the wellbeing of the cricketers he had brought to South Africa, not to mention his own life. But Gatting engaged this unprecedented challenge as he had conducted his whole career: in a straightforward fashion, most likely too straightforward for his own good.

Flanked by Graveney and Bacher, Gatting followed a protest leader into the throng, who uneasily parted for his passing. As missiles rained in from above, the party maintained their brisk pace without flinching or running, for fear of sparking a riot. Ten minutes later Gatting was bowling the second over after tea. Bacher said afterwards: "If England ever goes to war again they should take Mike Gatting."

Remarkably, the cricket continued as the tourists moved on to the first "test". Despite the inexperience of South Africa's new front-line bowlers, Allan Donald and Richard Snell, Jimmy Cook's side romped to a seven-wicket victory on a poor pitch at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. "It was probably a lot harder for the English side," Adrian Kuiper recalls. "We just focused on playing cricket."

Hundreds of black spectators were bused in to ensure a multi-racial audience for the television cameras, while outside 2000 demonstrators were dispersed with tear gas.

The farce levels had just kept on rising, but the morning after the "test" brought the endgame. On February 11 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison, sparking euphoria but also turmoil across the country. Ali Bacher received fresh death threats as a "friend of government" while the pressure on the tourists to return home increased.

Instead, the organisers struck a compromise deal, curtailing the schedule in return for a promise that anti-tour demonstrations would end. Four "one-day internationals" were completed as a mere formality, the English XI winning the last one as consolation before hurrying out of the country.

Frank Keating reflected in the Guardian: "No more inglorious, downright disgraced and discredited team of sportsmen wearing the badge of 'England' can ever have returned through customs with such nothingness to declare."

  • The Rebel Tours: Cricket's Crisis of Conscience by Peter May is published by Sportsbooks