England’s rebel tour to South Africa 25 years on

Furious protest greeted the rebel tourists and the tour organiser feared at one stage for the life of captain Mike Gatting. Picture: PA
Furious protest greeted the rebel tourists and the tour organiser feared at one stage for the life of captain Mike Gatting. Picture: PA
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IN NEW year 1990, dramatic and overdue political change had established an unstoppable momentum in many of the world’s most unexpected quarters.

Cricket played no part, of course, in Russia’s Glasnost evolution or the fall of the Berlin Wall in preceding years and months. But in South Africa, against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the disintegration of the apartheid era of racial segregation, Mike Gatting’s rebel tourists perpetrated an often grotesque sideshow.

Gatting, apparently with some good intentions, stepped into a critical situation way beyond his sphere of experience and his usual pay grade. His every word and deed was suddenly under a different scrutiny, in the higher-stakes reality of international politics and extreme social injustice.

He was no longer being called to account for his actions merely as an England cricket captain, or even a disaffected ex-captain as he perhaps was after his sacking in 1988. Lives were at stake this time – very possibly, in the estimation of tour organiser Ali Bacher, Gatting’s own during an especially volatile confrontation with antagonised demonstrators in Pietermaritzburg.

Unlike his predecessors on any of the previous six rebel tours, Gatting was plunged, partially through his own making, into crisis management in January and February 1990. Previous exposure to the comparative higher profile did not necessarily augur well – although, in mitigation, Gatting had found himself between a rock and hard place too in his infamous 1987-88 set-to with Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana.

As an incredulous world looked on from outside South Africa, Gatting was mocked and vilified as his Test team-mate Graham Gooch and his ‘Dirty Dozen’ of 1982 had been when they joined the first rebel tour, the only other one by an ‘England’ team.

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Gooch and Gatting both retrieved their reputations entirely, to hold high subsequent office in English cricket and reverence among supporters. Both too, though – along with several notables recruited to play under them – first had to serve three-year international bans.

Between 1982 and 1990, five more rebel tours were undertaken – by Sri Lanka, then West Indies (twice) and Australia (twice). To appease public opinion and circumnavigate wretched laws, an abhorrent “honorary white status” had to be accorded as required.

Sri Lanka, new to international cricket, fell well short against a generation of white South Africans of huge talent who had been prevented from taking on their sporting equals by universal sanctions against the apartheid regime.

England, under Gooch and Gatting, were played off the park – and Sri Lankan cricket was over-faced in its infancy.

But West Indies were a different matter. Even a second-string squad, in the era of Caribbean cricket’s domination, featured such names as Sylvester Clarke, Colin Croft, Bernard Julien, Alvin Kallicharran, Collis King and Franklyn Stephenson, under the captaincy of Lawrence Rowe.

Unsurprisingly, they proved more than a match for their hosts. Kim Hughes also led competitive Australia squads in 1985-86 and 1986-87 – both of which lost, on and off the pitch.

The cricket, of course, was secondary every time. Dr Bacher had facilitated and arranged relevant backing in the belief that it gave wonderfully talented players the chance at last to test themselves against the best from overseas.

But those opponents were ostracised and disowned by scandalised compatriots, the Australians described as “traitors” by their own Prime Minister and the West Indies handed life bans rescinded only at the end of the decade.

For Gatting, who courageously ran the gauntlet in Pietermaritzburg by sticking to his word to personally receive written protests, it was – after president FW de Klerk legitimised the African National Congress and released Mandela, and Bacher finally called the tour to an early end – a failed mission which the England captain at least survived.

To say it was ill-conceived too was as obvious to most then as it is now, and some of Gatting’s attempts at diplomacy – “I don’t know much about how apartheid works, but one way to find out is by going there”, he said before departing – were never going to help. South Africa was in the grip of an entirely necessary but highly dangerous revolution, a state of oppression relieved only after years of struggle, bloodshed and loss of life.

The rebel ‘England XI’ of 1990 hoped their tour might somehow aid the process. It almost certainly did not – and the best that can be said, perhaps, is that mercifully it did not derail the course of history either.

TOUR TIMELINE

MIKE Gatting led an England XI on what proved to be the last rebel tour of South Africa 25 years ago, just as the apartheid era was crumbling. Here is how events unfolded:

• July 1989: During the fourth Test of a 4-0 home Ashes defeat, a squad to be captained by Mike Gatting was announced for England’s second rebel tour of apartheid South Africa.

• September: FW de Klerk was elected South Africa’s new president and unexpectedly soon began hinting at appeasement with the African National Congress (ANC).

• 19 January 1990: As ‘England’ prepared to touch down at Jan Smuts Airport, Johannesburg police outside arrivals used force – tear gas and dogs – to break up anti-apartheid demonstrations by the ANC and National Sports Congress (NSC).

• Jan/Feb: Gatting had also agreed to receive personally any written protest about the tour. As the vexed schedule of matches began, he was true to his word – including before the fixture in Pietermaritzburg, where an especially agitated crowd had assembled. Dr Ali Bacher, managing director of the South African Cricket Union and organiser of the tour, later said: “I thought Gatting might get killed there. There was so much hatred.”

• 2 Feb: De Klerk ended the ban on the ANC, the political movement for many years categorised as ‘terrorist’ in an often violent fight against apartheid. The president also announced a plan for peaceful negotiation with the organisation which would go on to form future national governments initially under Nelson Mandela.

• 11 Feb: Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison, after 27 years spent mostly on Robben Island and then Pollsmoor Prison. His liberation sparked mass jubilation, and free response at last to decades of oppression, most evident when 100,000 gathered at Johannesburg’s Soccer City to hear their leader openly address his public. More than three weeks of volatile demonstrations followed.

• 13 Feb: Bacher announced the tour would be curtailed and final fixtures cancelled. He cited de Klerk’s announcements and said the schedule was being shortened to “show support for the dramatic political changes”. ‘England’ lost twice. It was 3-1 in ‘one-day internationals’, and the hosts also won the only ‘Test’.

• 1990/91 and beyond: A follow-up tour had been planned for the next winter, but was diplomatically shelved. England’s rebels reportedly received their full agreed fee – controversially from South Africa’s ruling party rather than corporate investors – and then had to serve a three-year ban from international cricket.

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