It was in 1963 that CLR James, adapting Kipling, asked the question “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” That quote illustrated perfectly the dilemma faced by cricket lovers about South Africa. Not for the first time the Marylebone Cricket Club is putting cricket sentiment before principle in its decision to erect a gate in Rachel Heyhoe-Flint’s memory. The decision is an affront and in this age of cancel culture it may become a target for Black Lives Matter activists.
In 1960, with Apartheid firmly in place, Rachel Heyhoe had been a member of an English women’s team touring the country. In her autobiography she revealed that the tourists had been warned “…to make absolutely no comment on the ‘racial issues’ (sic) in the country)”. Black spectators were banned at the matches and the coaching the English women did was only for the whites. The British Women’s Cricket Association (WCA), in which Rachel played a significant role for many years said that the 1960 tour “engendered goodwill”.
Rachel obeyed the rules in 1960 but by 1978 when her memoir was published, she revealed her true feelings “[I] retained the view that it was their country, and hardly the place of any English people to criticise”. This was a naïve even offensive remark, not least because it was made ten years after the D’Oliveira Affair and seven after South Africa had been banned from all international sport.
Rachel’s position on Sport and Apartheid was made crystal clear in her 1978 autobiography “[if] the British Government consider it their duty to register their disapproval of South African policies I suggest they cut off every contact with them, including banking and trading links. For, as things stand, sport is merely being used as a political lever. Who are we, in any case, to tell the South Africans how to run their country”?
Rafaelle Nicholson, a historian of Women’s cricket, has written that “in the build up to the D’Oliveira Affair, it was the women’s cricket community who continued to wholeheartedly to embrace South Africa.” The WCA was in the forefront of this, and Rachel Heyhoe played a significant part as player and later administrator. In 1968 once MCC reluctantly cancelled the men’s tour to South Africa over D’Oliveira the WCA followed suit cancelling their own planned cricketing stopover.
Nicholson writes further “Several members of the [WCA] Executive Committee had wanted to go ahead with the stopover… but had been outvoted. Presumably, this included England Captain Heyhoe-Flint, who told The Times that she was “very disappointed”. Nicholson calls her chapter on Women’s cricket and Apartheid “Who are we… to tell the South Africans How to Run Their Country”. She quotes Rachel Heyhoe-Flint verbatim.
Rachel’s position on South Africa, including her participation with many luminaries of the world of cricket to try and ensure that the 1970 men’s tour took place, was unequivocal. Her position in 1969 was an establishment one and many joined her in the “1970 Cricket Fund” which was set up to pay for security to allow the games to go ahead. Those in cricket opposed to the tour, most notably Mike Brearley and the Rev. David Sheppard, were in a minority. So Rachel was far from alone in supporting the 1970 tour.
The politics of all the “1970 Cricket Fund” supporters was probably “Reactionary Right” and these supporters included the Monday Club. The official TCCB position on Apartheid was that they “disliked it” but that “they could not change the law in South Africa [and that] playing against South Africa would be the best means of changing Apartheid”. This was certainly Rachel Heyhoe’s view. She said in the Preface to her autobiography that she had a “deep-seated interest in politics – I could dream that I might one day become minister of sport” so we are not dealing with someone politically unaware.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a binary divide between those who wanted to build bridges with and those who wanted to boycott South Africa. That Rachel was in the bridge-building category is not in itself to be condemned. So were many others including future MCC Presidents M.J.C Allom, Colin Cowdrey, Tony Lewis, and many other members of the cricket establishment. The Women’s Cricket Association was particularly pro South Africa ties and Rachel was often their go-to spokesperson.
By the early 1980s the issue had not gone away – a planned England Women tour to the Caribbean was cancelled because three of the England party had played on private cricket tours in South Africa. Rachel declared her position once again unequivocally and said “…perhaps the time has come for a stand to be taken against the removal of our freedom and rights”. The Times reported on 19th February 1983:
“Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, England’s best-known woman cricketer, said yesterday that she was “completely shattered” by the decision to cancel the tour “We heard through the Jamaican High Commission in London some 10 days ago that there could be a problem, but we never thought it could come to this,” she said. “The big irony is that the five people referred to went to South Africa four years ago on what was a completely unofficial visit and that subsequently the West Indies have played in England and have not raised any objection against the players who had been in South Africa.” John Carlisle, the Hard Right Conservative MP and a member of the MCC, said: “This cancellation illustrates the total chaos that now surrounds cricket and the extent to which political interference rears its head at every turn.”
The “freedom and rights” issue was, of course, to stay in play as the rebel tours began in 1982. This is a large and contentious subject and perhaps Mike Gatting’s statement that “I know very little about Apartheid [but] I do believe that there shouldn’t be any politics in sport” encapsulates the naivety or more likely hypocrisy often involved.
With hindsight Rachel can perhaps be seen as only being naïve but I think that would be a cop out. She was unquestionably in her statements and actions close to being an apologist for Apartheid. She could hardly claim like Gatting to “know very little of Apartheid” having toured South Africa as a player and visited as an administrator. She said, again in her 1978 autobiography, “And if we are honest, can’t we other examples of oppression, perhaps just as odious, in the recent histories of counties such as Chile and Russia?” This takes us into some very dark areas indeed. She implicitly acknowledges that Apartheid is “Oppression” but defends not doing anything about it by saying that there is oppression elsewhere. For someone with a declared “Deep-seated interest in politics” this is not surely ignorance or naivety but a declaration of her true feelings. There is a token criticism of Apartheid in her statement “…South Africa, apartheid apart, is such a wonderful country for a visitor”. But the idea that you could praise a country by avoiding any comment on its institutionalised racism, and with Nelson Mandela locked up on Robben Island, does rather stretch credulity!