Published on March 15th, 2018 | by Arunabha Sengupta


Southern Superpowers: Australia-South Africa Tests, The first Rebel Series

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.

Hype and Humdrum

It was a motley group of rather disillusioned Australian cricketers who landed in South Africa with the primary incentive of making money.

But the arrival of the team was promoted with all the necessary fanfare by the hosting nation.

Kim Hughes and Doctor Ali Bacher. Image Courtesy: The Guardian

Racial tensions ran sky-high and the new Botha government, while being brutal towards the blacks, was also unpopular among the whites. The tourists had to be escorted by an army of security personnel.

And all the while Ali Bacher announced that the Australians would ensure the first real Test cricket in the country since 1970. By now there was a feeling of déjà vu. He had said such things regularly, at the start of every rebel tour.

Such contrasting undercurrents continued to flow.

The South African press heaped praise on even the not-so-impressive records of some of the cricketers. Hughes presented the Springbok captain Clive Rice with his green Australian blazer. At the other end, Hassan Howa’s South African Cricket Board announced that any member attending the Australian tour matches would be banned for life.

The opening First-Class match was played against Orange Free State in Bloemfontein on the same day as the actual Australian side played New Zealand in Sydney. Throughout the tour, comparisons were made between the official side back at home and the unofficial team in South Africa. The players also had to work overtime to attend meet and greets consisting of long speeches and socialisation events.

However, while there was no shortcoming in hospitality and arrangements for the comfort of the tourists, there were other problems.

One was that the scorers and umpires were totally incompetent.

During the match against Orange Free State, journalists spent almost two hours at the close of play with official scorebooks, trying to reach an agreement about the final score of the Australian innings.

At Berea Park against a South African XI, Steve Smith, Mike Haysman and Mick Taylor were given out by umpires whose enthusiasm matched those of the appeals. Umpiring had been an issue in all the rebel tours. It reached laughable proportions at St George’s Park. When a batsman made room and slogged, and the ball passed between the pad and the leg stump, the delivery was called wide. When the Australian players explained the rules of the game to the umpire Sandy Matthews, he withdrew his call.

The ‘Tests’ begin

The first day of the first four-day ‘Test’ was played in front of a small crowd due to a number of boycotts by different bodies. Play finished 15 minutes after tea due to bad light. The administrators could hardly afford such interruptions on top of the diminishing interest.

However, there was plenty to cheer about on the second day. The 41-year-old Graeme Pollock, that supreme left-hander, stroked his way to a sublime century. It was his 62nd in First-Class cricket. There had been solid contributions from the experienced openers Jimmy Cook and Henry Fotherigham, but it was the age-less veteran’s innings that helped the home side to 393 even as Rodney Hogg and Carl Rackemann captured five wickets apiece.

In reply, the Australians lost regular wickets and were struggling at 185 for five before the uncapped Mick Taylor hit 109. Left-arm spinner Tom Hogan chipped in with a quick 53. After further interruptions due to bad light, the innings came to a close on 359 on the morning on the fourth and final day.

With little time left in the game, the home batsmen were asked to produce some entertainment for the dwindling crowds. The directive backfired. South Africa tottered at 37 for five at lunch on the last morning.

It looked as if the Australians would clinch a surprise win. But at this juncture, in one of the most bizarre of moves, Hughes took his two strike bowlers off and brought on Tom Hogan and John McGuire. With the pressure easing up, Fotheringham and wicketkeeper Ray Jennings guided the hosts to safety. Hogg remained available to bowl all day but was not brought back before the score read 174 for five. Rice declared when Fotheringham reached his century and the Australians batted out time.

Curious Commotion

Two days later, the sides met again for the second ‘Test’ at Newlands. On a slow pitch demanding immense patience, Cook, Kirsten and the scintillating Pollock helped South Africa amass 430. When the Australians batted, after two early wickets, Dyson and Hughes brought their experience into play, adding 105.

At the end of the day, 135 for three seemed a decent enough score, but the Australians were not going to have an easy night. Their hotel was vandalised with the legend, “The Au$$ies play for blood money.”

Shocks of a non-cricketing kind followed when they arrived at the ground on the following morning. The South African stadium announcer bellowed the news from the Sydney Test against the Indians: “The other Australian team – the B team – have taken four wickets in Sydney against India, who have scored 600 runs.”

It pleased the public as they thought the main side was struggling because their cream was here in South Africa. However, the Australian cricketers were not amused. They did consider themselves as patriots and Border was their mate. One of them had to be prevented from entering the announcer’s box to bring a forceful end to the hamming. Still, the message was passed, and there was no repeat of the incident.

Garth le Roux. Image Courtesy: ESPNcricinfo

Dyson scored 95, Yallop 51 and Garth le Roux captured four wickets as the Australians ended at 304. South Africa looked to score quickly and ran up a score of 138 for three by close of play. And the next morning, after a couple of meaty blows by the promoted le Roux, they declared at 202 for five. However, a determined Hughes held out for draw. The captain ended with an unbeaten 97.

This very display of Hughes, strangely, underlined that the tour was not being seen as anything close to an official Test series. According to Ivo Tennant in The Times: “Not only was it a sad end to an otherwise interesting match, but we were also given an indication of how the Australians view the series. Hughes, having ensured the match would be drawn, turned tail and headed to the pavilion with five of the 20 (mandatory) overs left…  The anomaly was that Hughes had 97 runs to his name. There has been talk here of whether these are Test matches proper. Hughes, by his action, gave his verdict. He would never have rejected a Test century.”

Result at last

Thus far the four-day duration of the matches had not really helped matters. Bacher announced that the third ‘Test’ at Johannesburg would go the full international distance.

The Australians faced a few problems before the final ‘Test’. The useful Hogan was suffering from flu and was forced to miss the match. The star wicket taking pacer Rackemann had a bronchial infection and it was a miracle that he was able to play.

Under cloudy skies, Hughes put the opposition in and opened the attack with Hogg and Terry Alderman. The two snapped up the openers – and almost immediately after that Hogg pulled his hamstring and did not bowl any further in the match. Soon it was Rackemann all the way. South Africa ended the day at 184 for eight and finished the innings on the following morning at 211. Rackemann ended with 8 for 84.

In response, Steve Smith blasted an exciting century. With the score on 159 for one at tea, the Australians looked very much in the driver’s seat. But rookie pacer Corrie van Zyl charged in after the break. The second ball caught the edge of Smith’s bat and the 41-year-old Pollock dived full length at second slip to catch it. With his next ball, van Zyl got Hughes leg before. The Australians slipped to 214 for five by the end of the day.

The next morning, Greg Shippard was bowled by le Roux for a soul-sickening 44 scored off 311 balls. With Rice and van Zyl picking up quick wickets, the visitors managed a lead of just 56. Rice, who had been given a torrid time by Rackemann in the first innings, now bowled a succession of quick short balls at Rackemann before claiming him leg before.

With Hogg limping out at the conclusion of the innings, supported by his runner, the Australian bowling was now heavily dependant on Rackemann. Along with Alderman, he did his best. With three wickets down by the time the score reached 80, the hosts seemed to be in a spot of bother. But the mighty Pollock struck form again, blasting his way to 51 at a run a ball. Michael Haysman later said, “I have just never fielded to a batsman who hits the ball so well and so accurately. It was, in many ways, an honour to be out there.”

Graeme Pollock. Image Courtesy: ESPNcricinfo

Rackemann brought an end to the majesty by making a ball rise up and strike Pollock’s finger, causing a fracture. However, the exertions affected the bowler. At tea, Rackemann was on the dressing room floor, hyperventilating due to fatigue. With a half-fit Alderman bowling most of the overs, Rice and McKenzie took the score to 192 for three by close.

The game was evenly balanced and at last, the series had turned exciting. However, at this point, Business Day ran an expose in which the entire tour was cast in a murky shade.

It was reported that the South African Government was granting 90 percent tax rebates to the sponsors of the tour. So, in effect, it was a Government ploy to promote the apartheid regime through the publicity of cricket matches, and the taxpayers were the ones paying for it. Panasonic and Yellow Pages were not funding it for commercial exposure, but due to the backhanded deals struck at the Cabinet.

An official of the SACU made it worse when he mentioned in a damage control interview that the furore was meaningless because the sponsor money catered to only a small percentage of the total expenses of the tour. He did claim that the rest of it came from the television and gate money. But those returns were so palpably paltry that it left no doubt that the Government was sponsoring the tours.

The Sydney Morning Herald carried a front-page story, “Pretoria paying rebel wages.” It was accompanied by a cartoon of two Australian cricketers walking out to bat with the announcer bellowing, “Brought to you by the same people who gave you the Sharpeville massacre.”

Historian Andre Odendaal put it in perspective when he said, “The rebel tours were really a foreign policy coup for an embattled regime in the 1980s. And the fact they were paid for with taxpayers’ money shows really how closely tied up they were to the project of trying to buy time for apartheid for it to go in a new direction.”

The match resumed after this immensely disturbing rest day. Rackemann returned to the field and removed Rice for 50. Wickets fell one by one and the hosts reached 273 for eight when heavy rains ended the match for the day. McKenzie was unbeaten on 95.

Gareth le Roux. Image Courtesy: Cricket Country

On the final morning, Alderman dismissed van Zyl in the second over of the day. And with McKenzie still short of his hundred, the ground stood up to applaud Pollock who emerged with a heavily bound right hand. McKenzie now hit hard and often, mostly through the leg side, to get his score up to 110. Pollock, batting with one hand, hit Alderman for two boundaries, and moved to 65 off 66 balls when his partner was dismissed.  Rackemann finished with 28 wickets in the series, and the Australians needed 250 to win.

The chase started amidst growing excitement. The openers put on 24, but then there was a sensational collapse. The four-pronged pace attack of le Roux, van Zyl, Hugh Page and Rice ran through the rest of the batting.

Le Roux bowled Shippard, gave Hughes a King pair when he inside edged the first ball to Jennings and then trapped Taylor leg-before to get a crippling hat-trick. Rice, who had claimed Rackemann and Hogg off the last two balls of the previous innings, sent down the second over after lunch and bowled Yallop off the first ball. Thus, it was a hat-trick for the skipper as well.

The Australians were all out for 61. A shell-shocked Hughes lamented, “All our hard work since mid-November was lost in two hours.”  The South African media celebrated the ‘first success against Australia in 17 years.’

The tour ended with six ‘One Day Internationals’, ending 4-2 in favour of the hosts. It was marred by umpiring controversies. The officials made mistakes in even counting deliveries. “Am I playing primary school cricket or international cricket? Surely they can count to six,” Hughes cried in anguish during a post-match conference.

By the time the tour ended, the injury-hit Australians were in a pitiable state. At a match in Griqualand West, they had to call up 44-year-old Garth McKenzie.

However, Hughes remembered this tour as one of his happiest. “There were no disturbances, unlike my other tours. Usually in West Indies, India and Pakistan we can at least expect one riot. In South Africa, it has been quite peaceful.”

Yes, but they were playing far away from the race riots, spending their time in a carefully cocooned white bubble. It was naïve not to realise that.

1985-86: 3 Rebel ‘Tests’ South Africa 1 Australia 0

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About the Author


Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and the author of Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets @senantix.

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