South Africa’s sports fraternity is celebrating the achievements of legendary black and coloured players who were excluded from national representation during the apartheid era. Mushtak Parker recalls the careers of four cricketers of a bygone age.
The names Sulaiman ‘Dik’ Abed, Ivan Dagnin, Saait Magiet and Michael Doman may not be familiar to cricket-lovers the world over, but to a generation of South Africans of colour, including me, they were our white-flannelled heroes during the 60s through the 80s.
They were excluded by an oppressive apartheid state from representing their country because sport was segregated along racial lines, which meant their achievements and talents were never afforded the national and international recognition and accolades that they rightly deserved.
As children of apartheid, we used to get our ‘racial revenge’ when we, as sports fans of colour, donned our school jackets to pack the segregated non-white enclaves at Newlands cricket and the adjoining rugby stadiums on test match days.
We were there only to support touring teams from New Zealand, Australia, the four British Home Countries and France, instead of the Proteas or Springboks, as if to show solidarity and in the process, two fingers to the very notion of apartheid in sports and society.
I can’t think of any other country where the home fans were actively rooting for the visiting international sides, who were largely oblivious to the ‘Game of Racial Tones’ that was being played out on the terraces. Such were the vagaries of sporting history in apartheid South Africa.
In the past few months, the above-mentioned four iconic players that graced South Africa’s cricket pitches have passed away. Since the collapse of apartheid in 1993 and the country’s first democratic elections a year later, they, like countless fellow cricketers, sportsmen and administrators of colour, who suffered the humiliation of international sporting exclusion throughout most of the 20th century, have belatedly if not retrospectively been acknowledged and recognised.
Of this generation, it was only Basil D’Oliveira, ‘Dollie’ to his many fans and of mixed Indian-Portuguese heritage, who abandoned the shores of the fair Cape to attain that elusive national and international recognition, when he was picked to play for England on the basis of residency.
Later he was rejected by the diehard apartheid Prime Minister John Vorster, when he was chosen as a last-minute replacement for the injured Tom Cartwright as a member of the MCC team to tour South Africa in 1968/9, after being controversially left out of the original squad. This was despite the fact that he had scored a century against the Australians at the Oval to ensure that England squared the Ashes series.
That was one of the most sordid episodes in English cricket history, when several MCC officials colluded with the apartheid regime to discourage D’Oliveira from touring. Eventually British Prime Minister Harold Wilson forced the abandonment of the tour and paved the way for the Anti-Apartheid Sports Boycott of South Africa, especially in cricket and rugby.
This led to apartheid South Africa’s international isolation in 1971, which was only lifted two decades later following the release of Mandela and his colleagues from the notorious Robben Island prison after 26 years of incarceration.
The likes of Abed, Dagnin, Magiet and Doman, and many others, played most of their cricket under unions affiliated to the anti-apartheid South African Council of Sport (SACOS), whose motto was ‘no normal sport in an abnormal society.’
To their supporters, they could have competed on the world stage if given the opportunity, but resisted attempts by the apartheid regime and their agents to be co-opted into white cricket structures to ‘normalise’ and therefore ‘legitimise’ sport in the apartheid state.
As a youngster, armed with my autograph book, I was able to watch international cricket greats like Australians Bill Lawry, Bobby Simpson, Garth McKenzie, Wally Grout, New Zealand’s John Reid and England’s Ken Barrington, Ted Dexter et al. in action.
However, because of apartheid, we did not have the opportunity of watching the great West Indians of my generation such as Learie Constantine, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes, Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith, Sir Garfield Sobers, Lance Gibbs and so on.
Nor were we able to watch greats from the Indian subcontinent, including Hanif Mohamed and Mushtaq Ahmed of Pakistan, or the Nawab of Pataudi, Bishen Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and others from India. They were non-white and therefore barred from playing against the all-white apartheid South African teams.
There was even one ludicrous plan to invite the West Indies to play South Africa but only against a non-white South African team. It was unceremoniously dismissed by SACOS and its affiliated players and it precipitated D’Oliveira’s move to the UK.
Homage to unsung heroes
There has been a great deal of pride and sincerity in the remembrances to South Africa’s unsung cricket heroes. Tributes to their memories have poured in at community centres, clubs, mosques and churches.
At the end of September, for instance, the Imam at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town even paid tribute to the memory of Abed, Dagnin, Magiet and Doman in his sermon at the Friday prayer. Saait Magiet and his younger brother Rushdi, another non-racial cricket legend, were men of faith who played for the Primroses in Claremont, a well-to-do ‘white’ suburb which had a small Muslim community which somehow survived the attention of apartheid.
“There are scores of inspirational stories about the exceptional skills and athletic prowess of Saait Magiet, who represented Primroses, the pride of Claremont, in the sporting codes of cricket and rugby,” the Imam said.
Experts such as Mo Allie, a BBC World Service Africa correspondent and author of More Than a Game, the definitive history of non-white cricket in the Western Cape, firmly believe that had Magiet received the requisite coaching and playing opportunities, he would have made his mark on the international scene.
He was considered just as good as coloured players in the post-apartheid era like Vernon Philander, Ashwell Prince, Hashim Amla, Kagiso Rabada, Paul Adams, Makhaya Ntini, Temba Bavuma, Herschelle Gibbs, Imran Tahir, Keshav Maharaj and others who became international stars and the pillars of the sides they played (and play) in.
Celebrating lives of sporting legends
Sulaiman ‘Dik’ Abed, also of Indian descent, was the youngest of a famous Cape Town sporting family, who similarly made his name in sporting exile, playing cricket together with his brother Goolam in the Lancashire League in England in the 1960s. The latter also played rugby league for Leeds.
Abed finished his career with Enfield in the Lancashire League in 1976. The irony is that he outperformed highly rated white South African players like Clive Rice, Pat Trimborn, Peter Swart and Dave Orchard, who were all playing in the League at the same time and who went on to play for South Africa during the apartheid era.
Abed was voted as Enfield’s All Time Great ahead of luminaries like Sir Clyde Walcott, Conrad Hunte and India’s Madan Lal on the occasion of the centenary of the League in 1998. Abed too was courted by the apartheid regime to play in South Africa, but told the officials to get lost. He took up Dutch citizenship in the mid-1970s and captained the national team that played at the second ICC Trophy competition in England in 1982. NA