Over 30 years ago in 1982, 17 men made a decision that would change their lives forever. These men were the West Indian rebels.
Lawrence Rowe, Richard Austin, Herbert Chang, Sylvester Clarke, Colin Croft, Alvin Greenidge, Bernard Julien, Alvin Kallicharran, Collis King, Everton Mattis, Ezra Moseley, David Murray, Derick Parry, Franklyn Stephenson, Emmerson Trotman, Ray Wynter and Albert Padmore. They played four weeks of cricket, an unofficial test and a one day series, against a South African XI.
At the time most of these players were young, up-and-coming stars frustrated at being unable to break into a very strong national side that had recorded back-to-back world cup victories.
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Another issue for these men was that first class cricketers in the West Indies were very poorly paid and most who participated in this tour, and the subsequent tour a year later, were having to seek employment in the winter months in order to make a living. So so when they were offered a chance to earn over $100,000 for just two tours of South Africa, they jumped at the opportunity.
Meanwhile South Africa were over 10 years into their international sporting isolation due to the apartheid regime, this cut short the careers of many young talents such as Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock and Mike Procter, who were never able to reach their full potential on the international stage playing less than 50 test matches between them.
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The South Africa Cricket Union was appointed in 1976 to try and manage cricket in South Africa and make it open to all races. This, however, did not work as many non-whites refused to participate, feeling that it was a weak attempt to try and end their ban from international cricket.
Despite this the SACU was still determined to keep cricket as a popular sport in the country and not allow it to fade into obscurity. The best way to do this, they felt, was to offer international cricketers exorbitant fees so that they would participate in a ‘rebel’ tour, putting their careers on the line at the same time.
Although the ban opposed these tours, seven of them took place over a nine year period, the first of them being an English XI led by Graham Gooch in 1982. This led to international scandal with the press, politicians and the general public outraged with the squad of 12 being nicknamed ‘the Dirty Dozen’ in the Houses of Parliament. The South African side defeated the English XI assuredly, 1-0 in the ‘Test’ series and 3-0 in the One Day series.
The full squad of 15, three extra players were called up to cover injuries, were given three year bans from international cricket. The bans ended many of the squad’s international careers including Geoffrey Boycott, Chris Old and Derek Underwood. Only Gooch and John Emburey played more than seven tests after the end of their bans.
The second rebel tour of South Africa was by an inexperienced Sri Lankan side that were just beginning to make their way in Test cricket after playing their first match earlier that year versus England. The ‘Tests’ and One Day series played on that tour were won comfortably by South Africa.
After two rebel tours that South African XIs had won emphatically, the SACU decided to target West Indian cricketers and persuade them to partake in a series of their own.
This was for two main reasons; first of all the West Indies were by far the strongest side in international cricket at that time which was evident by the fact that players such as Lawrence Rowe and Sylvester Clarke were unable to make the side despite putting in good performances on a consistent basis.
This left quite a few talented players such as Rowe disillusioned with the cricket board in the West Indies and so with players of this quality touring South Africa it would make for a much higher standard of cricket.
The second reason is that, because the apartheid regime was the reason they were banned from international cricket in the first place, a squad of black cricketers being willing to go to South Africa and play cricket was an attempt to show that black people supported the regime.
The tour ended with South Africa wining the One Day series 4-2 and the ‘Test’ series being drawn 1-1. All of the cricketers involved in the tour received life-time bans from cricket in the West Indies.
The ‘rebels’ became controversial figures and were no longer idolised by the Caribbean public who saw them as traitors working with the apartheid regime. Many of those involved in the tour were shunned by friends, family, fellow cricketers and coaches such was the abhorrence that was felt nationwide towards what the players had done.
Thirty years on and many of those who participated in what was viewed as the ultimate sell-out have suffered badly due to the volley of abuse they received from their compatriots.
David Murray, wicketkeeper on both ‘rebel’ tours and son of West Indian legend Everton Weekes, turned to drugs and alcohol because of what he experienced after returning from South Africa.
Nowadays he can be seen mixing with drug dealers in Barbados and he says that when walking down the road, complete strangers turn to him and say “you sold your soul” which, even after all these years, cause him a huge amount of distress.
Richard Austin, a hard-hitting all-rounder who could bowl both medium-pace and off-spin was once likened to Garfield Sobers. He too fell in with drugs and died last year aged 60.
In 2006 there was a Test match in his native Jamaica and he was heard in the grandstand laughing hysterically but a blink of an eye later the laughter turned to tears. A local official has said that Austin has been in therapy five times but it has had no effect.
Another official says that he once stumbled upon another of the ‘rebels’, left-handed batsman Herbert Chang, standing torpidly in the centre of the road. Chang, clearly detached from reality, began staring at the official and mumbled the words “man, man, man, I just, I just wanna know which end I bowl from tomorrow”.
Out of the 17, nine fled the Caribbean for other countries and most of those have managed to get by easier as a result of this. These included fast bowler and World Cup winner Colin Croft who initially moved to the USA and all-rounder Collis King who went to England.
Captain on that tour, Lawrence Rowe a once elegant and enigmatic batsman was forced to sneak into a Sabina Park bar to watch Test matches at the ground he spent over 10 years playing at and for many, many others involved in that tour the torment and misery continues.