West Indies rebels’ bitter legacy

Behind money, there is always a principle,” says Michael Holding solemnly. He’s talking of his compatriots, some of whom were once friends and fellow Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The West Indian rebel tours of South Africa, in 1982-83 and 1983-84, were a stake to the heart of cricket in the Caribbean, which had always identified with emancipation movements.

The fissures created by those who opted to take the rands on offer have yet to heal. Perhaps they never will and those players’ reputations will forever be tainted.

Holding still remembers where he was when he got the offer. “It wasn’t Dr [Ali] Bacher that called. It was Lawrence Rowe [Windies batsman] himself. I have no idea to this day how they got my number. I was playing Shield cricket for Tasmania then, and living in a motel.”

The money on the table? A mind-boggling $250 000, worth nearly thrice that today. “They wanted me to play the last couple of matches on that tour, and then go back again the following year.”

Though Holding never sported the Rasta wristbands favoured by Viv Richards or wore political activism on his sleeve, there was never any question of him taking the cash.

“It was a lot of money. I think my contract with Tasmania was worth less than $15 000. I wasn’t rich and it was a life-changing amount. But this was a country that was killing and brutally oppressing black and coloured people.”

Richards, who was apparently offered $500 000, also said no, and both men then played their parts in two consecutive Blackwashes of England — in 1984 and 1986. Those who came to South Africa, including Colin Croft, once part of the most fearsome pace attack in history, became pariahs. “Except in Barbados,” says Holding with a smirk.

He scoffs at the reason proffered by many rebels that they were just professionals doing a job. “I heard that from a few guys on the country circuit as well, who would come out here for the winter. But they all knew what was going on. How could they not?”

He’s most conflicted when he talks about Rowe, his fellow Jamaican. Rowe was once so good that Richards spray-painted his nickname, Yagga, on his backyard fence. “Technically, Lawrence was the better of the two,” says Holding, with the bowler’s eye. “But Viv had more character. He could make the tough runs.”

You often get an uneasy silence when Rowe’s name is mentioned in Jamaica, where they once adored him. When I tell Holding that the only place I have seen undiluted admiration for the man is in Barbados, he nods. “Because of the triple hundred he made against England (1972-1973). He was a very good player.”

Today’s cricketers don’t need to go on rebel tours, what with a swath of domestic Twenty20 competitions to choose from. Franchises would have broken the bank for Holding and his fellow pacemen, but he has absolutely no regrets about missing the gravy train.

“I wouldn’t have lasted 12 years in international cricket if I was playing today,” he says with a laugh. “The schedules don’t do fast bowlers any favours.”

As for India, he reckons they really need to up their game to be competitive in England this summer. “The Tests are only being played in August and September. It will start getting cooler then and the ball will move around more than in
June/July. They will need to bat a lot better than they have here, especially with someone like Jimmy Anderson probing away.”

The day before we met for the chat, Sulaiman “Dik” Abed died in the Netherlands. Many in the South African cricket community haven’t even heard of him. Though a prolific all-rounder in league cricket in England, the injustice of apartheid ensured that he never even played a first-class game.

Reams continue to be written about the “tragic” careers of Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, Clive Rice and others. But at least they were recognised in their own lifetimes. Men like Abed only ever inhabited the fringes.

Holding smiles ruefully when I mention Abed and the “tragedy” of South African cricket’s “lost” generation. Several of them have since been vocal critics of Cricket South Africa’s transformation policies.

“They’ll never get it,” he says with another smile. It’s the face of a man content with the choices he made, one who turned down the devil’s rand to be a legend instead.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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