Episode 106: Before D’Oliveira – the glories and the shame of England’s Tests against South Africa

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

In his book Swallows And Hawke, co-written with past podcast guest André Odendaal, the historian Richard Parry gives a uniquely penetrating account of England’s first eighty years of cricket relations with South Africa, ended by the D’Oliveira affair. It is full of pulsating cricket matches in exciting locations – but all deeply entwined with racism and imperialism. He is the guest in the latest edition of the cricket-themed podcast by Peter Oborne and Richard Heller. In Peter’s unavoidable absence, Roger Alton takes up the attack.


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Richard explains that racial segregation in South Africa was firmly established long before formal apartheid and in the earliest days of its representative cricket. One of South Africa’s first captains, William Milton, was secretary to Cecil Rhodes, and responsible for the first major racist legislation in British South Africa. Cricket helped to cement the economic relationships of South Africa with British capital and to normalize for the Empire and the outside world the white-dominated society on which they depended. 2-7 minutes He traces the business interests of the controllers of both countries’ cricket, Lord Harris and Sir Abe Bailey, which turned England – South Africa cricket relations for eighty years into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Consolidated Goldfields. 8-9 minutes

On the field, the cricket was memorable. He identifies three phases. The first, before 1900, was started with a pioneering tour led by Aubrey Smith, later a knighted actor and founder of the celebrated Hollywood Cricket Club. The early tours had long, hard and dangerous travel conditions before the arrival of major railways (25-27 minutes) and played largely exhibition matches, often against odds. The second phase after the Boer war saw victories by South Africa’s quartet of bowlers who had mastered the new mystery ball, the googly. These were avenged by 49 wickets in just four Tests by Sydney Barnes.  He sets out the playing conditions which the brilliant Barnes demanded for himself – and why he refused to take even more wickets by walking out of the fifth Test. (33-34 minutes) Then for nearly fifty years after the Great War England’s visits produced series which were not settled until the last day of the final Test, in contrast to the many dead Ashes rubbers of the same period. 10-12 minutes

Richard tells stories of the great cricket played in these matches, including the epic duel between Barnes and South Africa’s legend, Herbie Taylor, (34-37 minutes) and the so-called timeless Test in 1939, when England’s pursuit of a target of 696 was ended by their need to catch the boat  home – or risk being stranded by the impending war. (38-42 minutes) England’s captain in that series, Walter Hammond, had many relationships over a long period with South Africa: one ended in his second marriage. Like other players of his era, he benefited from media silence about his off-field activities. 42-47 minutes

England Tests in South Africa attracted huge crowds – almost exclusively white, despite the efforts of campaigners including Gandhi. The few black and coloured spectators at major grounds were herded into special pens, where they showed their feelings by cheering for England. 12-14 minutes

He notes the contrasting attitudes of  visiting English amateurs and professionals. Nearly all the amateurs spent their tours in a luxurious bubble of hospitality from South Africa’s white Establishment. The professionals had some awareness of the black and coloured people they encountered playing and watching cricket, especially those they faced as net bowlers in practice. Subject to almost feudal conditions in English county cricket, there was little that the professionals could do for them.  In the earliest tours, the professionals formed links with South Africa’s so-called Malay community, 15-18 minutes and Richard tells the story of how they recommended its leading player, Krom Hendricks, as the best opening bowler in South Africa. This was to no avail – Hendricks was banned from representative South African cricket by order of Cecil Rhodes. 19-23 minutes

Hendricks played high-quality so-called coloured cricket matches into his sixties, but all his efforts, and those of other coloured and black players, were cut out of the records and narrative of South African cricket which was treated as a “civilized” game only whites could play. 23-25 minutes He shows how their status and treatment grew worse after the Act of Union in 1910, a settlement between the white races of South Africa at the expense of all the others, which denied them all hope of equality in civil society, in cricket or anything else. 28-32 minutes

This worsened still further with the development of formal apartheid after the Nationalist party victory 1948. Richard shows how the excluded races tried to combat the government’s divide-and-rule policies and create a non-racial cricket body, SACBOC. He lists some of their great players before Basil D’Oliveira, such as the batsman Frank Roro, still almost ignored in South Africa’s cricket history. 47-51 minutes

Richard has some new revelations from original research about D’Oliveira. He first cites the precedents for his exclusion, when Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji were both kept out of English sides due to play South Africa. 52-54 minutes He shows the deep determination of the MCC grandees to preserve cricket relations with South Africa at D’Oliviera’s expense – and suggests new people to blame for his non-selection in 1968, which would ultimately suspend those relations until the end of apartheid. 55-62 minutes

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller & Roger Alton

Roger Alton, guest host for this episode, was formerly editor of The Observer and The Independent, and is currently the Sports Columnist for The Spectator. 

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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