/ 18 December 2014

Why axe fell on 1959 cricket tour

We feature three HIV positive women in their 40s who fit the profile of a typical M&G reader.
We feature three HIV positive women in their 40s who fit the profile of a typical M&G reader.

If you were to confide in a passer-by at SuperSport Park this weekend that Frank Worrell was once on the cusp of bringing a black West Indian cricket side to apartheid South Africa, they wouldn’t believe you.

But there is a framed collection of tour artefacts to prove it, and they hang at the back of an insurance broker’s office in Fordsburg along with the Dadabhay trophy, nonracial cricket’s equivalent of the Currie Cup, and have done for years.

The tour was the brainchild of the South African Cricket Board of Control (Sacboc), the nonracial cricket board, and was brokered by the board secretary, AM “Checker” Jassat. So advanced were negotiations with the West Indies authorities that a Fordsburg tailor made up a tie, blazer badge and bow tie in advance of the tourists’ arrival in 1959. They were to be captained by Worrell – who had yet to captain the West Indies – and would contain a dashing all-rounder called Garry Sobers, Everton Weekes, and the goofy spin twins, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, about whom the calypsonian Lord Beginner sang: “Those two little friends of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine.”

At the last minute, the ANC elite got cold feet. They worried that their nonracial message would be compromised by such a tour, given that the West Indians planned to play local Indian, Malay, coloured and black opposition. Instead of their blessing, they gave a thumbs-down. Worrell and his men never got the opportunity to wear the blue-and-green bow-tie at official functions.

“It was very late in the day,” said Mohamed Mayet, in whose insurance company the objects hang. Mayet inherited the firm and its artefacts from his uncle, “Chummy” Mayet, in the 1990s. Its archive of correspondence was destroyed in a flood some years after Chummy’s death. More correspondence was lost and plundered over time, leaving the bare bones of the story of Worrell’s aborted tour.

Was Worrell inspired to undertake the tour from a sense of political allegiance, or because it gave him an opportunity to captain what was very close to a full-strength West Indian team – or both? Or was he perhaps making a point against the West Indies board, notorious for their pettiness and small-mindedness?

Until Worrell came along, it was a feature of Caribbean cricket life, for example, for the West Indies to be captained by a white man. Gerry Alexander was the incumbent until Worrell took the side to Australia in 1960-1961 in what turned out to be a ground breaking tour full of adventurous cricket and a tied first test.

So emotive had the subject become that the cudgels were taken up by left-wing intellectual CLR James. “The idea of Alexander captaining a side on which Frank Worrell is playing,” wrote James at the time, “is to me quite revolting.”

James also had strong views on Worrell’s side touring South Africa, and weighed in with zesty blows, in his seminal book about Caribbean cricket and emancipation, Beyond a Boundary: “The team, I thought, should go. Apartheid sought the isolation of the Africans not only from whites but from free blacks. The tour would have had worldwide publicity. The African cricketers and African crowds would have made contact with world-famous cricketers who had played in England and Australia. There might have been incidents? So much the better.”

James is perhaps not at his best here, revealing a slightly shaky grasp of South African racial realities. Only Ben Malamba and George Langa would, in all likelihood, have played against Worrell’s men as black Africans, the side comprising players such as Gesant “Tiny” Abed, Cecil Abrahams, Ahmed Deedat and Mohamed Bulbulia. It would have been remarkable to see Ramadhin and Valentine, for example, bowl to Basil D’Oliveira or Bulbulia on the hessian wickets of Natalspruit and to watch “Tiny” Abed hurl deliveries at Andrew Gautaume, the West Indian opener.

It was not to be. The South African authorities would have been chary at the prospect of allowing Worrell’s men into the country, with the consequent possibilities for social and political unrest. They would also have known that Johnny Waite and Roy McLean had already made public their desire to tour the West Indies as part of one of cricket broadcaster and commentator EW Swanton’s itinerant teams. What if they decided to play alongside Abed and D’Oliveira against Worrell? It was a thought too horrible to contemplate. The entire social fabric would collapse.