Episode 58: Restoring the lost history of South African cricket

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.

Professor André Odendaal has made it his life’s work to tell his native South Africa its true cricket history. He has restored to memory the achievements of thousands of black, mixed-race and Asian-origin players deliberately suppressed to serve the cause of white supremacy. Besides giving back to South Africa its cricketing past he shares responsibility for its present and future as a board member of Cricket South Africa. Born into apartheid, he describes his personal journey into truth and liberation to Peter Oborne and Richard Heller as the latest guest in their cricket-themed podcast.

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André sets the scene by recalling his curatorship of the Museum at Robben Island, the prison which held Nelson Mandela for eighteen years. He shares the experience of handing over the keys to a former inmate who had been brought to the prison in chains, and of receiving Mandela himself, with his wife Graҫa Machel, in his tiny former prison cell. He describes a (literally) notable exhibit, the working saxophone carved by an inmate from flotsam and jetsam. 2-6 minutes

He outlines his early childhood in a rural conservative conformist community strongly supporting apartheid which, however, gave him a strong sense of belonging to Africa and taught him to speak Xhosa, a valuable resource for his later work. He describes how in his teens Peter Hain’s protests against cricket links with South Africa, and the general global shift away from colonialism led him to seek fundamental change in his country’s restricted society especially through its sport. 6-12 minutes

He explains how meeting black cricketers and the fiery anti-apartheid sports campaigner Hassan Howa led him to understand the inadequacy of the partial and largely symbolic sporting changes in the 1970s. Then in the 1980s, Ali Bacher persuaded the government to subsidize “rebel” cricket tours.  All these efforts were intended to preserve South Africa’s access to international sport while leaving the fundamentals of apartheid intact. 15-20 minutes

André sets out his journey as a cricketer who played first-class matches as a batsman. He shares early memories of Tony Grieg (an alumnus of his school) and the influence of the school and  then Stellenbosch University, both élite, white-dominated institutions, on his cricketing development and outlook. 12-15 minutes The irrepressible personality of Eddie Barlow was also a powerful influence as a coach and later captain. 22-26 minutes Cambridge University (as a graduate student) gave him his first experience of playing cricket, living and travelling in a multi-racial environment. 27-31 minutes It reinforced the message of his meetings with Howa and black cricketers, and André describes his momentous decision, on return to South Africa, to abandon white cricket and its limited reforms. He became the first and indeed only white South African cricketer to commit himself to non-racial cricket and to the ANC’s cause of extinguishing apartheid. The commitment was so total as to deny him the right to watch cricket (as a white person) at South Africa’s ground at Newlands. Instead he disrupted the match there played by the England rebel tourists under Mike Gatting. 37-39 minutes

With great power, André describes his journey to a township rally and the instant welcome he received as virtually the only white person in the crowd, countering the hostility of the heavy police presence. It exemplified the immense humanity and forbearance of black, mixed-race and Asian people in surviving no fewer than 300 laws to control their lives in the apartheid era. 31-35 minutes The UDF (the proxy movement for the white ANC) always sought to expand its tiny base among white South Africans and demonstrate its commitment to including them in its vision of a unified multiracial nation. He attacks the exponents of “white victimhood” in present-day South Africa who refuse to acknowledge the millions of victims of white supremacy. 39-42 minutes

André movingly recalls the rifts his decision caused between him and his parents, and the pressures of living in two conflicted worlds during the last throes of apartheid. 35-37 minutes

Turning to his life’s work as a historian, André describes his discoveries from reading early African newspapers. From its inception in the nineteenth century, South African cricket had many major performances by black, mixed-race and Asian-origin cricketers, for teams strongly organized by an aspiring educated African middle-class. But this did not at all suit the interests of Cecil Rhodes and British industrialists, who saw Africans only as low-cost labourers in farming and mines. 42-47 minutes At the behest of Rhodes and his acolytes, black, mixed-race and Asian-origin players were excluded from the South African and first-class provincial teams, despite their talents, while the emerging African middle-class were progressively denied rights to vote, own property, get education and set up businesses. This pattern was established long before formal apartheid and by English-aligned South Africans in collusion with Afrikaners. 47-55, 62 minutes  He traces the role of cricket and South Africa’s early white English-speaking captains in the English conquest and brutal subjugation of native peoples. 49, 56-59 minutes

To maintain the structure and ideology of white supremacy in South Africa, cricket had to be recorded as a white-only game in annuals and history books. André describes the colossal task of rediscovering the records and memories of cricket played by black, mixed-race and Asian-origin players. The work is far from complete, and he sets out the next steps in revealing the true story of South African cricket. 60-63 minutes

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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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