Episode 36: The man who changed cricket for ever: Peter Hain

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.

He was once the most hated man in cricket. He faced down threats to his career and to his life. He achieved his mission, an epoch-making change in international sport. His new book (with the great historian André Odendaal) Pitch Battles not only narrates his astonishing personal journey but sweeps up the history of South African sport and society, especially the lost stories of non-white players, and throws down major challenges for everyone today who cares about the state of global sport. Peter Hain discusses these themes and makes new revelations as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Peter Hain traces segregation in South African sport to its earliest days when under the influence of Cecil Rhodes the English colonial authorities decided to exclude non-white players from representative teams, including the superb fast bowler Krom Hendricks, “the Basil D’Oliveira of his time.” He adds: “Although laws were introduced under apartheid to enforce it in a very rigid way, racism in South African sport began under English rule.”

He speaks of his South African childhood as a cricket and soccer fanatic forced to play segregated sport: “I could not play with or against black players because it was against the law of the land.” The apartheid régime actually banned black spectators from white-only sporting fixtures, and he remembers the police removing and beating up those who climbed trees to watch their local team. His family were alone in his circle in admitting black people to their home as equals. One black friend told his parents: “this is the first time  I’ve come through the front door of a white man’s house.” White people generally chose to live in a bubble: “It was not so much  turning a blind eye [to apartheid] as not wanting to know what was going on.” He draws a grim comparison with a later visit to the former Dachau extermination camp, where the local villagers had professed themselves unaware of its purpose.

Peter Hain describes his journey into anti-apartheid activism, which began at age 11 when his parents were jailed and later served with banning orders which actually stopped them communicating with each other until they were given special permission by the government. His father was unable to work as an architect and his family moved to London when he was sixteen. He joined the anti-apartheid movement but remained sports-crazed. “From my own experience, I always thought sport was a vulnerable spot for apartheid”. Arms and trade with South Africa were hard to attack because of the great geopolitical and economic interests behind them, but “I thought we could do something about sport and that’s what led me to get into non-violent direct action to stop white-only South African sports tours.” The non-selection of Basil D’Oliveira gave huge impetus to his campaign to stop the 70 white South African tour, with which the MCC persisted as if nothing had happened.

He recalls meeting D’Oliveira years later in 1994 during South Africa’s first post-apartheid tour of England, and his enduring wistfulness at being denied the opportunity to play for his country of birth. Peter Hain had initially resented D’Oliveira’s refusal to get involved in the anti-apartheid cause, but in retrospect he acknowledges that his non-political stance helped to expose the nature of the South African régime and win the support of middle England against the tour.  He says that he always sought a broad coalition of opposition to the tour, and cites the Fair Cricket Campaign, launched by Bishop David Sheppard and the former Conservative Education Minister Sir  Edward Boyle, with “many luminaries of the Establishment”, who met him in secret, to the chagrin of his most militant supporters.

He describes the rehearsals in 1969 for direct action against the 70 tour, first in the actions against the private white-only South African cricket tour by the Wilfred Isaacs XI and then against Davis Cup tennis and the touring Springbok rugby team. They opened in the Basildon, Essex (rarely a hotbed of protest) and soon made him an almost universal figure of hate among sports fans: “People did not understand why we were disrupting their favourite sports and there was a real sense that this represented the end of civilization.” Still only 19, he was propelled into the national limelight as chairman and principal spokesman of the newly-formed Stop the 70 Tour campaign: “I was quite shy… I expected to be just a foot-soldier.”

The Springbok rugby tour was successfully disrupted not only by sit-downs at Twickenham and other pitches but by infiltrations of the team’s hotel (with high-strength glue) and even the team coach. “These actions helped us build a broad-based movement to stop the 70 tour by non-violent direct action – but as a sports lover I felt double-edged about this because that team was one of the greatest  teams in the modern age.” He describes meeting some of them years later, and hearing their acceptance of the necessity of his campaign, notably Mike Procter, who said “This figure Peter Hain – I hated him at the time and he stopped my international career, but actually he did the right thing.”

The campaign induced African, Asian and Caribbean countries to threaten to boycott the Commonwealth Games due that year if the 70 tour went ahead. “The politics around that became explosive and the tour became a seismic event – but it was the threat of direct action that got it cancelled. It was a great relief when that happened because we would have wrecked the tour.” He recalls only two figures of standing in the cricket world to support the campaign.  One was John Arlott and the other was Mike Brearley. “He very courageously joined our March conference and spoke from the platform. There was virtually nobody else, and we were viewed as an alien bunch of anarchists, communists and drug-taking nasties by the MCC and the Establishment. There was simply no meeting of minds with them.” Besides saluting Mike Brearley, Peter Hain hails the refusal of the Welsh and British Lions rugby international John Taylor to play against the white-only Springboks. Otherwise British sportspeople generally avoided confronting apartheid or even thinking about it.

Defenders of the 70 tour and sporting links with South Africa often talked of “building bridges” to influence her policies. Peter Hain rubbishes the phrase: “It was deeply dishonest and hypocritical sophistry. From 1948, when the policy of ‘building bridges’ began, apartheid grew worse.” Conditions worsened not only for non-white cricketers and sportspeople but for non-racial officials. “There was no attempt to build bridges with them, and they were harassed, sacked from jobs, subject to banning orders and jailed.” He cites the infamous case of Dennis Brutus, shot by the police allegedly trying to escape custody, abandoned with life-threatening wounds by a white-only ambulance and ultimately imprisoned on Robben Island.”  He says that “building bridges” never attempted to create change in South Africa, which was achieved only after the pressures which began with the sports boycott.

He describes the huge personal pressures he faced leading the campaign but adds: “I suppose I had the innocence of youth. I felt that this was a cause that had to be pursued, where we had a chance of 100 per cent success, which we did achieve, which is a very rare thing for any moral cause. I always thought we could do it, and I didn’t worry too much about things people could do to me.” He received massive hate mail and faced physical violence; his university career and later employment with the Union of Communications Workers were threatened. South Africa’s infamous Bureau of State Security sent him a letter bomb which might have killed his family. Later they tried to frame him for a bank robbery, abetted by the cricket-loving judge King-Hamilton (one regularly mocked by John Mortimer in Rumpole Of The Bailey), who actually invented new evidence of his own in his summing up. He also survived a private prosecution for conspiracy financed by the South Africans. Elements of Britain’s security services may have assisted some of BOSS’s efforts. “They regarded us as Communist agents and the South Africans astutely positioned themselves as resisting a Communist takeover of Africa.”  He says that he took heart from the intensity of BOSS’s actions in demonstrating the impact of his campaigns.

Peter Hain recalls some of the press coverage which helped to make him an ogre to British sports fans. John Junor, the famously choleric editor of the Sunday Express, called for him to fall into a sewage tank up to his ankles – head-first. “And that was one of the nicer things said about me.” British newspapers established a myth that he had dug up cricket pitches and he was actually blamed (years after the 70 campaign) for the attack in support of the convict George  Davis on the Headingly Test match pitch in 1975. “The only thing I did to cricket pitches was to run onto them and sit down on them.” He is still horrified by the other false allegation that he put tin tacks onto rugby pitches. He acknowledges that there were many freelance proposals for action against the South African tourists, including breeding locusts, using radio-controlled aeroplanes and (Richard’s personal 1970 proposal) synchronized movement behind the bowler’s arm.

Peter Hain reflects on the lessons of his successful campaigns for modern global sport, and particularly the criteria by which nations ought to be excluded from it. He says that in the late 1960s “South Africa singled itself out. I was accused of bringing politics into sport: actually it was the South Africans who did so.” White South African politics had denied Basil D’Oliveira the chance to play for his country, denied the possibility of non-racial sports in the country, denied him the opportunity as a boy to play sport with or against anyone who was not white. “South Africa was very clear-cut in my mind. Its politics infested the heart of sport in a unique way, only paralleled by the way the Nazis excluded Jews from sport in the 1930s. But when you get to contemporary questions, such as Arsenal’s star Mesut Özil rightfully protesting against China’s horrendous treatment of the Uighurs, you have to ask should there be sport with China, or should there be sport with Russia, given its treatment of dissidents. I am very cautious about taking a hard and fast position on all this. You have to judge [each case] on its merits, in the particular circumstances, otherwise, frankly, there would be no international sport at all and we would all find a reason for not playing with each other.” But he acknowledges that there are big moral issues at stake, for example in whether Saudi Arabia is using sport to project a wholesome image for itself on the global stage when it has just jailed a female journalist for campaigning for women’s rights. He calls for a measured debate on ethical issues within international sport by all sports administrators, players and supporters. He is encouraged by the willingness of leading sportspeople such as Lewis Hamilton, and even sports administrators, who have engaged with human rights issues and BlackLivesMatter – a huge contrast to sportspeople’s attitudes in the Sixties and Seventies.

However, he is horrified by the reaction of many in the white cricketing world in South Africa to BlackLivesMatter. “They took a very antagonistic, denialist stance. I would have thought that of all the teams, South Africa, with its thorny and vicious history of apartheid in cricket, would have taken the lead, white and black, in supporting BlackLives Matter. Apartheid stained South Africa for half a century, and before that there was racism in cricket, with the exclusion of Krom Hendricks. South Africa should have been leading the way, and white cricketers, with their black international colleagues, should have been the ones to say to the world ‘we should all do this together.’ Instead they are still arguing among themselves, the whole cricket administration has been split…. Civil war has broken out in South African cricket over BlackLivesMatter in a way I frankly find repulsive and astonishing.”

Get in contact with the podcast by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we’d love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

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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