Episode 63: South African cricket – still haunted by its unacknowledged legacy of white supremacy

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.

Former first-class cricketer and leading historian André Odendaal has made it his personal mission to reconstruct the true story of South African cricket from its beginnings. He reveals more of the black, mixed-race and Asian-descent players  whose talents and achievements were suppressed and for whom opportunity was denied by South Africa’s white rulers and cricket administrators. He suggests that South Africa is at last coming to acknowledge the deep poisoned legacy of white supremacy, as a returning guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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It was recorded on the anniversary of Don Bradman’s final Test match innings – the second-ball duck at the Oval which robbed him of an average of 100. André recalls John Arlott’s famous commentary on the event, and reflects on Arlott’s gifts as a broadcaster, his kindness as a mentor (notably to the unknown Basil D’Oliveira) and his early principled opposition to apartheid.

André resumes the story of South African cricket after the formation of the Union as a Dominion within the British empire in 1910. He integrates this into the wider history of white supremacy (which long predated formal apartheid) and the wholesale denial of property rights, education, voting rights and economic opportunity to any South Africans who were not identified as white. He tells some grim stories of African people (and their community organizations including cricket clubs) forced to uproot themselves and relocate in distant places. That legacy persists today: low-income workers cannot afford to buy property in the areas formerly reserved for whites and have to take long taxi rides to get to work.

He traces the fragmentation of South African cricket into seven separate administrations for racial groups in both men’s and women’s cricket, with the white organization paramount and in sole control of first-class and Test recognition. This segregation was slowly challenged amid collective defiance of apartheid, and the touring party which Basil D’Oliveira captained in East Africa in 1956 was the first to be open to all races.

He tells the story of C B Llewellyn, the gifted all-rounder regarded as Coloured, who, before the Great War, was the only player to break through racial segregation and achieve international status. Like D’Oliveira years later he was forced to seek opportunity in English county cricket. He recalls the wave of black, mixed-race and Asian-origin South African sportspeople who found success overseas, as well as the champion golfer Papwa Sewgolum, winner of the Dutch Open who eventually won the Natal Open but was not allowed to collect his prize in the clubhouse. He regrets Gary Player’s past support for the apartheid system and urges him to admit his error, to help break South Africa’s long cycle of denial of its impact.

André traces the ideology of white supremacy in South African cricket: given that cricket was identified as a mark of civilization, granting equality to black and mixed-race people in cricket would be an admission that they were civilized. He notes the collusion in South Africa’s white supremacy policy of the MCC and white cricket administrators in other countries, and of official statisticians, including Wisden, which put only white South African cricketers into the record books. He hopes that Wisden might give retrospective attention to the past achievements of black, mixed-race and Asian-origin cricketers as it has done lately for past women cricketers. The Association of Cricket Statisticians has made an encouraging initial response on the issue.

He picks out some outstanding players who were wrongly denied their opportunity to shine in first-class and international cricket for South Africa, notably Taliep Salie, whose long career as a wrist-spinning all-rounder began after the Great War, Eric Petersen, a combative fast bowler of the Fifties, and Owen Williams who played successfully both in England and Australia after emigrating.

He speaks of the “needle in a haystack” research which unearthed over a thousand scorecards of significant matches and players ignored in the white-only South African cricket narrative. He conveys what it felt like to experience the lost cricket cultures of South Africa, both as a white player who was the first to join a nonracial cricket team and as a historian in meetings with past players, and their children and grandchildren keeping their traditions alive.

Finally, André speaks of South Africa’s struggle to escape from, or even acknowledge the deep legacy of racial segregation in its cricket. However, he is hopeful that the recent flow of first-hand testimonies by black and mixed race South African international players has raised consciousness of this issue among all South Africans and inspire a new collective effort to address it.

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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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