The four-match Test series between South Africa and Australia is underway. It is expected to be a thrilling encounter. Arunabha Sengupta writes about the past encounters between these two cricketing giants.

Sundials in Shade

The hope was on the ebb, but there were still some who clung on to the forlorn expectation that the isolation would come to an end and Test cricket would commence again in the land. For a decade and more, the phenomenal cricketers continued to play in the county circuit, some in Australia and played their own Currie Cup. And wished that the political forces would somehow break this deadlock that kept them from playing the game at the highest level.

However, with time the future looked bleaker and bleaker.

The International Cricket Conference had stipulated two conditions for re-admittance.  Teams had to be selected on a multi-racial basis. Besides, there had to be an investment in the underprivileged areas.

By the prevailing South African standards of the early 1970s, these conditions constituted a major revolution. Goaded by the requirements, some commendable work was carried out during the decade.

Yet, the Gleneagles Agreement was unanimously approved by the Commonwealth Nations in 1977.

The work done by the South African authorities was actually rather impressive. In fact, when the ICC delegates visited the land, they went public saying that there had been a considerable amount of effort spent in promoting cricket among the non-whites. They even recommended that the ICC send a strong side to South Africa consisting of representatives of as many countries as possible to play a series of matches. However, the decision making body sat on the fence. It was a political minefield filled with delicate eggshells, and they were not eager to ruffle too many sensitive feathers.

Forget it till you end apartheid

As the South African Cricket Board of Control, a body to represent the interest of non-white cricketers, proclaimed: “no normal sport in an abnormal society.” Hassan Howa, the spokesman of SACBOC, made it into a popular slogan. And with the international laws and regulations in place, even England, Australia and New Zealand could not send their teams to the land anymore.

Finally, TCCB chairman Doug Insole opened up to South African Cricket Union chief Ali Bacher: “Until apartheid goes, you can forget about getting back into world cricket.”

In a desperate measure to keep the sport and its following alive in the country, the Rebel Tours commenced in the 1980s.

Private Companies were encouraged to sponsor the tours, with massive tax benefits awarded by the government. South African Breweries, Panasonic and others responded.

The England squad which toured South Africa in 1982. Image Courtesy: The Guardian

The first rebel team to tour the land was a band of Englishmen in 1982 — a team led by Graham Gooch that included Geoffrey Boycott and Derek Underwood. An enthusiastic but rather ordinary Sri Lankan side visited the very next season. This was followed by a major victory of the cricket administrators of the country. A star-studded West Indian team visited twice, with Lawrence Rowe, Alvin Kallicharran, Sylvester Clarke, Colin Croft, Collis King and other famous names.

In most cases, the approach of Bacher and his associates remained the same. Individuals were contacted, a point of contact was identified, players with issues with the management were singled out, offers were made, and recruitments were carried out. It boiled down to intelligent poaching practices.

The Australian Approach

After the 1983 World Cup, the ideal team to approach was Australia.

The Australia-South Africa encounters had always fascinated the nation’s cricket following public. The Aussies were their preferred cricketing rivals, an equivalent of the Kiwis in rugby. The Springboks still remembered the 4-0 annihilation they had meted out to Bill Lawry’s team in 1970.

Secondly, no other team was in a more divisive state.

There had always been a bitter relationship between captain Kim Hughes and the trio of Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rodney Marsh. Even after the retirement of the three great Australian cricketers, Hughes was not really having a smooth time as captain. During the 1984 West Indies tour, a disgruntled Rodney Hogg had actually thrown a punch at him over a disagreement about the field.

Bacher approached the Australians through Tony Greig — the master of clandestine poaching, former recruiter for World Series Cricket. But he had a problem. Employed by Channel 9, Greig knew that his employer Kerry Packer was certain to oppose the idea. Packer’s channels beamed the official Australian matches now, and departure of star players would be a potential threat to his extremely lucrative business.

Greig suggested Bruce Francis, a former Australian Test opener who had toured South Africa with the privately sponsored Derrick Robins XI in the 1970s. Francis, an economics graduate, drooled on the intellectual interpretations of the apartheid question and was adept at highlighting the hypocrisies of the stance of the other countries when it came to South Africa. He delighted in being the contact person, and later manager of the side.

By this time, the Australian Board was virtually toothless. In fact, of the 14 delegates, three were actively involved in business with South Africa, one even selling cricket equipment to the Western Province Cricket Union.

Over the next two seasons, four of them would even watch part of the ‘Test’ series contested by the Australian rebels.

By October 1984, only captain Hughes, Allan Border and Geoff Lawson had not signed to visit South Africa. It was a drastic change of events. In fact, when first approached a couple of years earlier, Hughes had refused and warned the Board about possible poaching of players.

In April 1985, Adelaide Advertiser broke the story that Terry Alderman, Murray Bennett, John Dyson, Hogg, John McGuire, Rod McCurdy, Wayne Phillips, Carl Rackemann, Steve Rixon, Dirk Welham, Kepler Wessels, Graeme Wood and Graham Yallop had all been signed up by South African agents. However, Kerry Packer himself countered the problem with the best possible antidote. Fatter offers were made and several players were tempted back in the fold, tongues lolling out for better reimbursement.

The Australian squad which toured South Africa in 1985. Image Courtesy:

At this stage, Hughes bid a tearful farewell to the Australian captaincy, with the understanding that he would continue as a batsman. The Australian selectors promptly sacked him as batsman. When he got to know of this, he did not have anything to hold him back.

Loyal to the establishment and a staunch patriot born on the Australia Day, Hughes had been the captain of the traditional Test outfit during the latter days of the Packer years. Now, he was now offered the captaincy of the rebel team and he readily accepted. “I am going to South Africa with an open, and I hope, an intelligent mind. I believe I have the ability to judge right and wrong. I also believe I will be able to comment and suggest ways in which the situation can be improved,” Hughes said in a live television conference.

Steve Smith and Graham Yallop also joined the team. The A$100,000 per tour, that too after tax, was too lucrative to turn down. David Hookes and Jeff Thomson actually refused to tour because their demand was for more, something even the generous and desperate South African board could not offer.

Border was not offered, mainly because it seemed that he had no reason to turn back on an Australian Board that had just made him the captain. He was later candid about the incident, “I’d have thought very hard about it. In fact the higher the offer, the harder would I have thought.”

Even Prime Minister Bob Hope expressed disappointment with the two most experienced deserters, Hughes and Yallop. However, Packer was not very worried. According to his entrepreneurial assessment, the rebel team was supposedly ridding the Australian side of serious dead-wood.


The first rebel tour of Australia to South Africa was hence formalised.

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