Highly stimulating grand sweep of history from Rhodes to Richards

Russell Holden
In the Zone Sport and Politics Consultancy | @russinthezone

Bruce Murray, Richard Parry & Jonty Winch (eds.)
Cricket and Society in South Africa, 1910–1971: From Union to Isolation
383 pages, hardcover, ill.
London: Palgrave Macmillan 2018 (Palgrave Studies in Sport and Politics)
ISBN 978-3-319-93607-9

Anyone growing up in the United Kingdom during the 1970s and 1980s and addicted to cricket had the good fortune to watch live, or on television, some of the finest players from South Africa the modern era has produced. Whilst relishing the elegant batting, supreme bowling and razor-sharp fielding of the likes of Barry Richards, Mike Procter, Eddie Barlow, Clive Rice and Vincent van der Bijl, most of us were oblivious or not fully aware of why these players were plying their trade so far away from their respective homes. Neither did we fully comprehend how this could be permitted in the climate of international sporting boycotts of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Cricket and Society in South Africa 1910–1971 jointly edited by Murray, Parry and Winch, is a response to this question in which the contributors explore South African cricket history, constructing an analytical framework based around an exploration of issues of landscape, the available player pool and the politics of the nation-state and its position in terms of international diplomacy. Each of these themes is accorded a section of the book with the issue of the player pool accorded most attention. However, some of the chapters undoubtedly could easily fit under any of the headings.

The editors, all of whom boast extensive track records in sport and cultural history, have drawn upon an extensive range of contributors, six of whom having contributed to a predecessor volume Empire and Cricket (2009) which focused on the late 19th century and early twentieth century period, a text also using history as a vehicle for understanding social transformation. As Odendaal declares in the foreword to this volume, “cricket is a quintessential political game, handmaiden of Empire and in the context of South Africa a barometer of race, class, ethnicity and gender”, a perspective which constitutes the essence of this valuable contribution to social, political and diplomatic history.

As the opening chapter acknowledges, cricket has a weight of ideological baggage unmatched by other sports in South Africa, and has been shaped by the relations between land, labour and capital, as well as town and country. The text explores the tangled and complex relationship between cricketers, politicians and the economy during a period commencing with the creation of ‘South African’ cricket team in 1889 to play Major Warton’s English tourists, which led to the formation of the South African Cricket Association (SACA) in 1890, and the Currie Cup, a new country-wide competition.

When South Africa came into existence as a new state in 1910, two national governing bodies existed for cricket. Unlike other cricketing countries, the game in South Africa fractured to the extent that at one time seven different organizations existed, each governing their own leagues and provincial competitions with each selecting their own national sides.Consequently, the Springboks who played in 172 tests between 1889 and 1970 did not represent their country in the truest sense. In reality the team were the product of discriminatory socio-economic and political policies throughout the aforementioned years. Although cricket officially took root in South Africa after the British invasion of the Cape in 1795, the country’s cricketers have been formally united under a single Cricket South Africa only since 1991 and its divided past still bears significant imprints on the present.

The dispute revolved around SACA’s decision to respond to the impending crisis of the cancellation of the upcoming series against Australia of isolation, should the tour of England scheduled for 1971 also be cancelled.

The new nation was far from unique amongst imperial cricket playing countries in the degree to which cricket influenced and moulded the political and social order. Yet ,as Parry notes, the South African dynamic was qualitatively different with racial questions underpinning the development of the game. (Though it is worth noting that it took a long time until the West Indies acquired a black captain.) By the mid twentieth century the segregationist strategy had solidified through the development of an ideology to justify its repression. This determined who could play with or against whom, and where, and was enshrined in law.

Each chapter in this volume seeks to explain and extrapolate some of the key strands in South African cricket history and the contributors have managed to illustrate how all South African cricketers (both male and female) used their own specific interest groups to further their own objectives. Levett’s discussion of the respective places of Percy Sherwell (cricket captain) and Paul Roos (rugby captain) and how the latter was deemed acceptable as a national hero in a land still traumatised by the war at the turn of the 20th century establishes the tone for analysis. This set cricket back and it had to fight hard to restore its value and significance to a sizeable chunk of the white population as well as to those in the Black, Indian and Malay communities who both played and loved the game but were denied opportunity to develop and realise their full talent. Chapter two goes into some detail on the heroics of some of those highly talented individuals.

The most interesting sections deal with the Indian community where Vahed focuses on cricket in the Indian population in Natal, whilst Winch explores the links with Southern Rhodesia which was deemed an unofficial cricketing province of South Africa by the governing party, and used to bring players in to the strengthen the national side. Grundlingh charts the reversal of opinion on cricket within the Afrikaner community particularly that inspired by changing recreational patterns generated by increased wealth which helped to forge a more homogenous youth culture and the sharing of middle class interests that included cricket. The growing success of the national team in the 1960s also helped to cement this process.

The book’s final section inevitably considers the D’Oliveira Affair, but the more revealing contributions consider whether the West Indies should have toured South Africa in 1959, whilst the volume concludes with a look at the players ‘walk-off’ protest in support of merit selection of the national side. The dispute revolved around SACA’s decision to respond to the impending crisis of the cancellation of the upcoming series against Australia, and the possible isolation which would follow if the tour of Eangland scheduled for should also be cancelled. The desire was for future Springbok sides to be selected on merit irrespective of colour. The rejection by the government of this request demanded a response from the players who chose to undertake a silent, yet symbolic walk off the field at a test trial at the Van Riebeeck festival marking the tenth anniversary of the republic. The significance of this lay in the fact that this was an elite privileged group of sportsmen perceived as icons by many who, as Ferriday claims, were confronting the government and “interrogating the very foundations of their sport, and through that, their society”.

The text manages to convey and explore the tensions between fragmentation and unity on and off the pitch. It may yet have been more powerful had Odendaal been granted the opportunity to expand his thoughts into a full chapter. What is revealed in this highly stimulating grand sweep of history from Rhodes to Richards is far more than a chronology of events, rather a hidden history of a fractured society and a tribute to forgotten players and administrators and their impact on an evolving sport that possessed an extraordinary richness and diversity of talent.

Copyright © Russell Holden 2020

Table of Content

The Landscape

Landscape, Players and Politics
Richard Parry, Jon Gemmell, Jonty Winch

Eclipse of the Summerbok: Percy Sherwell, Paul Roos and the Competition for a National Game for South Africa
Geoffrey Levett

‘Not the Same Thing as on Grass’: Political Conservatism, Cultural Pessimism, Vested Interests and Technical Inhibition—Factors in South African Cricket’s Commitment to Matting, 1876–1935
Dale Slater

The Players

African Cricket on the Rand: Piet Gwele, Frank Roro and the Shaping of a Community
Richard Parry

Rhodes, Cricket and the Scholarship Legacy: A Southern African Perspective, 1903–1971
Jonty Winch

India in the Imagination of South African Indian Cricket, 1910–1971
Goolam Vahed

Diffusion and Depiction: How Afrikaners Came to Play Cricket in Twentieth-Century South Africa
Albert Grundlingh

The Education of Bruce Mitchell and the ‘Union Babies’: History, Accumulation and the Path to Triumph at Lord’s, 1924–1935
Dale Slater, Richard Parry

‘Rejects of the Sporting Whites of the Continent’: African Cricket in Rhodesia
Jonty Winch

The Politics

Should the West Indies Have Toured South Africa in 1959? C. L. R. James Versus Learie Constantine
Jonty Winch

The D’Oliveira Affair: The End of an Era
Bruce Murray

‘Who Are We … to Tell the South Africans How to Run Their Country?’ The Women’s Cricket Association and the Aftermath of the D’Oliveira Affair, 1968/69
Rafaelle Nicholson

Newlands ‘Walk-Off’: Politics and Players
Patrick Ferriday


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