Thirty years on and a different world: remembering the rebel cricket tour

Cricket ball hitting the stumps
Picture: Graham Dean
Cricket ball hitting the stumps
Picture: Graham Dean

If it seems a lifetime ago and a different world, it’s because it probably was. The spring of 1982 would soon be dominated by words and phrases that are being commemorated and recalled again today.

But at that point very few had heard of yomping, tabbing, Goose Green, General Belgrano or Exocet. Those words and places would dominate the headlines, overshadowing and equally dark period in this nations sporting history.

Back then, South Africa was a no-go area in a sporting context, unless you were the British Lions.

South Africa proved they could still play rugby in 1980, but a generation of their cricketers had been idle in the Test arena due to its Apartheid system.

There was never going to be an official tour. But in early 1982 a bunch of English players arrived in South Africa for a month-long tour.

This was breaking the sporting embargo big time. Led by Graham Gooch, the squad also included the world’s top Test run maker, Geoff Boycott, along Dennis Amiss, John Emburey, Mike Hendrick, Geoff Humpage, Alan Knott, Wayne Larkins, John Lever, Chris Old, Arnold Sidebottom, Les Taylor, Derek Underwood, Peter Willey and Bob Woolmer.

If they had expected a ticking off from what was the TCCB at the time or the ICC, then they underestimated the national and international outcry. While they tried to justify their appearance as a way of breaking the apartheid system, no-one bought that excuse.

They were branded “The Dirty Dozen” although, eventually, time did cleanse their collective and personal standings.

At the time however, they were headline news. Until they took to the field of play.

The South Africans were too good, too confident, and had too much to prove (and lose) and against a collection of has-beens, never-beens, and one or two would-be players, even if the PR people tried to pass them off as a full-strength England XI, missing only Ian Botham.

In South Africa, the rebels were treated like sporting royalty, heralded as champions ahead of the three “Tests” and a similar number of one-day “internationals”.

Once the action started however, they looked anything but a first XI.

The South Africans, led by Mike Procter and full of ability and desire, won the Tests series 1-0, and the ODI’s 3-0.

Batsman Jimmy Cook starred, as he would do years later with Somerset, while Vintcent van der Bijl, known to many for his stay at Middlesex, was successful with the ball.

But as news headlines focused wholly on the conflict in the South Atlantic, few paid much attention to the sound of leather on willow, or of cheques being cashed.

Regardless of anyone’s claims or moral stance, few believed the English participants had undertaken this trip for anything other than financial gain.

What they hadn’t bargained for was the three-year bans from international cricket handed down by the ICC, ending the majority of their international careers, Boycott being the most high-profile “victim”.

Of those who did return, Middlesex spinner John Emburey and Essex opener Graham Gooch made the biggest contributions. Indeed, somewhat ironically, Gooch went on to captain England, officially.

Ten years after that illegal trip, South Africa were back in the Test Match arena, officially. Apartheid had gone, and so too the Springboks’ sporting exile.

It’s difficult to recall a time when the Springboks were not participating in the international cricket – and sporting – arena.

It is, perhaps, even more difficult to think of cricketing mercenaries flying halfway around the globe, and turning up to give credence to a corrupt government and society – even for those who lived through that shocking episode.