Cape Town – Far away from the cricket pitch, in a cramped conference room at a Holiday Inn – Cassim Docrat has his face in his hands. It is 1990 and it has been seven months since negotiations over the unification of local cricket began and there has been little traction.
For two associations on the opposite ends of a segregated factional war this was never going to be an easy process. It is frustrating for Docrat, each idea met with a brick wall as two very different ideologies collide.
The SA Cricketing Union, or the white association, has everything, from stadiums, to top-notch facilities and a fully-fledged team that has played on the international stage, albeit against the so-called rebel teams.
It is something many of its members guard with vigour.
What do they have to gain from their black counterparts? Counterparts who are the poster children for apartheid’s neglect and oppression, their stadiums and facilities in ruin, their pitches more mud than grass and a cricket board funded by charitable members with shoestring budgets living in impoverished communities.
As a representative for the “coloured” Natal Cricket Union within the South African Cricket Board of Control, Docrat finds himself being pushed in different directions. He is told: get as much as you can, let black cricket profit for a change and bring our cricketers into the fold, take them overseas.
And after every failed meeting, his phone rings again, politicians on the other end – impatient but certain that the unification of cricket will carry South Africa peacefully towards the first democratic elections.
“Is it done? Can we put this behind us?” they ask.
Today, Docrat is somewhat philosophical in his appraisal of that difficult time 25 years ago.
“Those were hard questions to answer. Their heart was in the right place, and we can’t forget what they did to push this forward. But it was a crazy time,” he says in a telephone interview.
“I had big dreams for our cricket association, but what I always wanted was to make sure that black cricketers got the same opportunities and facilities as everyone else.”
While Docrat knocked back litres of cheap coffee and argued over reams of paper, one of the new South Africa’s future poster children found himself at the centre of controversy.
Omar Henry, who would go on to be one of the Proteas’ first coloured cricketers, had been thrown out of the black association in 1988.
“On our way back from a cancelled match, we had stopped outside Kingsmead Cricket Ground and me and a couple of guys went in to check it out,” Henry explains. “It was chalk and cheese compared to what we had. It was amazing. But someone obviously reported us – we were not allowed to be there – and I was drawn in front of the board and banned for visiting a so-called white stadium. The irony was that we were staying in a white hotel and travelling in a bus owned by white people on a permit given to us by white people.”
Seeing his dreams of playing on an international stage seemingly go up in smoke, Henry jumped at the chance when he was offered a spot in the national team. At that stage it was playing against rebel teams from Australia and England, who went against sanctions.
“There were riots in the street about this, and it just got worse when news spread that I had joined the ‘whites’.”
His hometown of Stellenbosch turned on him, with only his family rallying behind him while friends and supporters insulted him in the street.
“It was hard, but I was offered no choice,” Henry says. “Where else could I go if the coloured association didn’t want me? I needed to play cricket and this was the only option.”
He spent his winters in Scotland, playing cricket in the local league.
By 1991 a compromise had been reached in the conference room of yet another Holiday Inn. The rival boards would merge, with a 50/50 split in black and white members.
For Docrat, it was both a victory and a loss.
“We had what we wanted, what the politicians wanted. And I had my assurance that facilities would be developed for everyone,” he says.
“But where I wanted to wait until we had a diverse team before we started touring, there was pressure to go overseas straight away.”
Eventually, under the justification that India had respected sanctions against South Africa by refusing to send a rebel team to the country during apartheid, the Proteas embarked on their first legal international tour since the late 1950s.
This was later followed by the World Cup in Australia in 1992. It was where Henry arrived in the limelight, a moment lauded as breaking down the barriers of apartheid.
“It was huge,” he says. “When they announced we were taking part in the World Cup it was big news. When I found out I was going to be part of the team, it was even bigger.”
It had taken almost 23 months to negotiate the unification of cricket.
But neither Docrat nor Henry is entirely happy with how the sport has been developed over the past 20 years.
“There is definitely much more that can be done,” says Docrat. “Now the emphasis is on getting black African players into the team, and we really need to look at how to do this.”
Henry says it is clear what sport has done.
1961: SA loses membership of the International Cricket Council (ICC), then known as the Imperial Cricket Conference, after it left the Commonwealth.
1970: ICC members vote to suspend SA indefinitely from international cricket competition. It has been often said that the country’s team at the time was the strongest in the world.
1972: The first meeting of the three national bodies controlling cricket in SA was convened at a Holiday Inn. The South African Cricket Board of Control (Sacboc) did not attend.
1973: Sacboc applies for membership of the ICC in an unsuccessful bid to wrestle international recognition away from the country’s white body.
1981: The first of the rebel tours takes place, as a team of England players visit to challenge the national team. Players who toured in South Africa were almost always blacklisted by the ICC and barred from taking part in sanctioned competitions.
1991: As South Africa moves towards democracy, and local cricket is unified under a single body, the country is accepted back into the fold of the ICC. SA’s first sanctioned tour since the 1960s takes place as the team travels to India.
1992: SA takes part in the World Cup in Australia. The national team was knocked out by England in the semi-finals after rain disrupted play, leaving England chasing a smaller, revised target.