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Apartheid at Center of Controversy : Real World Intrudes on England's Pastoral Pleasure of Cricket

September 06, 1987|KAREN DE YOUNG | The Washington Post

LONDON — It was a recent Sunday afternoon in Bath, that most beautiful of English cities, nestled in the green, curving valley of the River Avon. The sun glowed on the graceful limestone buildings, and church bells pealed in the distance.

The day was made for cricket, that most English of games, whose very name is synonymous with gentlemanly behavior and fair play. Much of the city had gathered at the local sporting ground to watch Somerset, the professional home county team, take on visiting Warwickshire.

Aging men, dressed in ties and tweed jackets that they declined to remove in the heat, had the preferred spectator positions in weathered deck chairs around the border of the playing oval, while others sat on the grass or in bleachers.

Attention was focused on the field, where a baker's dozen men, all in dazzling white, went earnestly about the game.

Not Like Soccer

Unlike this country's other national game, soccer, cricket is a quiet sport for both fans and players. As usual, the spectator response to notable play was polite applause and an occasional, quickly extinguished "ho-ho" of individual delight.

Scenes like this, repeated across the country on summer Sundays, make it seem certain that there will always be an England. Where else would play be interrupted, halfway through the afternoon, for a ritual tea interval?

Yet a storm cloud is hanging over this idyllic world of white flannels and club ties. International politics and the revival of an issue that has plagued cricketdom for the last quarter of a century have once again intruded.

The focus of the controversy is far away South Africa, expelled in 1972 from the International Cricket Conference (ICC), the sport's international governing board, for its policy of apartheid.

Final Severance

The expulsion was the final act in a severance, which had begun more than a decade earlier when South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth, the 49-nation group of former British colonies that forms the backbone of the cricket world.

Despite the international restrictions, however, a number of professional English cricketers have kept their links with South Africa. Poorly paid and out of work for the winter months when there is no play here, about 70 players bolster their incomes by coaching or playing for South African cricket clubs.

It is these players who have become a source of conflict. In recent weeks, nonwhite cricket-playing nations, led by the West Indies and India, have called for any player with a South African sporting contact to be banned from playing on his national team in "test," or international first-division cricket.

In addition to the two resolution sponsors, the national teams involved include England, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Color Lines Drawn

The English national cricket team is chosen from among the 17 leading county professional teams, including Somerset and Warwickshire. All of them depend for their survival on revenue from an annual series of highly profitable international matches, divided among them by the governing Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB). At least two members of the current English team have played in South Africa.

Like a previous battle over rugby play in South Africa, which kept 19 black African nations from participating in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the cricket war has divided playing nations along a color line. The white cricketing countries--England, Australia and New Zealand--oppose the ban as an unacceptable restriction on their national rights.

The nonwhite nations see it as part of a vital effort to pressure the Pretoria regime by isolating it from every possible contact with the rest of the world.

At an emergency ICC meeting here in June, the West Indies agreed that the issue be considered by a special multiracial committee to report back next March.

Breathing Space

But although cricket gained some breathing space, and the resolution sponsors pronounced themselves satisfied, no one expects the controversy to go away.

Without the South African restrictions, "it would be a hell of a job to keep world cricket together," said Alan Rae, chairman of the West Indies Cricket Board.

Strongly implying that his organization was under pressure from the Caribbean governments, whose countries make up the West Indies team, Rae said: "England taught us our cricket and sustained us. We deeply want the (international matches) to continue, but for them to go on, our . . . resolution must be passed."

Jackie Hendriks, the manager of the West Indies national team that is due to compete at the cricket World Cup this October in Pakistan and India, said, "There has to be a point when the South African matter becomes more cut and dried."

Matter of Survival

Professional county teams, like Somerset, which provide the stars from which England's national team is chosen for each test match series, could not easily survive without international cricket.

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