The long hot summer of 1976 saw the Montreal Olympics, Bjorn Borg win Wimbledon for the first time and Johnny Miller clinch the British Open title. It also witnessed England’s mauling by the West Indies with a rich seam of talented cricketers. A 3-0 series defeat somewhat flattered England as Viv Richards smashed 291 at the Oval. However, what might a South African test side have achieved at this time?
The Proteas had already been in exile for six years as the apartheid regime continued to stain the country’s reputation. In a perfect world sport would have nothing to do with politics; however the reality was different as players unwittingly became diplomats for the country they represented. Pressure had steadily grown since segregation in 1948 and the continued exclusion of non-white players. The catalyst arrived on the heels of a proposed MCC tour to South Africa in 1968-69.
Basil D’Olivera had been a member of England’s test side since 1966. A dip in form had led to his omission but injuries to other players prompted an invitation to join the MCC party. A native of Cape Town, D’Olivera was of Indian and Portuguese ancestry. The South African Government were adamant the tour could not go ahead if D’Olivera was selected. Both sides argued over the politics of Dolly’s selection but the schism was close at hand. In March 1970, South Africa beat Australia by 323 runs in the 4th Test at Port Elizabeth to win the series 4-0. It would be their last official test match for 22 years.
But what if we lived in that perfect world and apartheid had never reared its ugly head. South Africa’s golden generation would have been a formidable combination at test level, most of whom plied their trade in county cricket. If we sat on a virtual board of selectors who would have made it into the team that never was?
The opening bat would be the prodigiously talented Barry Richards of Hampshire. In that test series against Australia he scored 508 runs and averaged 72. He won the last of 4 test caps at Port Elizabeth where he scored 126. Richards enjoyed a glittering first class career hitting over 28,000 runs including 80 centuries and a top score of 356. In his first season with Hampshire (1968) he scored an astonishing 2,395 runs and formed a lethal partnership with Gordon Greenidge. Richards would have opened with the bespectled wizard that was Eddie Barlow. The man from Pretoria played in 30 tests and was captain of Derbyshire in the mid-70s. Stockily built with glasses Barlow soon acquired the Billy Bunter tag. However, this belied a fiercely competitive cricketer. Unusually for an opening batsman he was also a useful medium pace bowler and took 40 test wickets with an average of 34.
In at number 3 Graeme Pollock, the kingpin of cricket’s first great dynasty. The younger brother of Peter and uncle to Shaun, the family have 159 test appearances between them. Pollock is one of only two players in this virtual line-up never to play county cricket, having spent his domestic career with Eastern Province and Transvaal. Approaching his peak when the ban took effect Pollock hit an individual score of 274 in that final fateful series. Australian captain Bill Lawry remarked on his extraordinary power, and that he had never seen anyone hit the ball quite so hard.
Into the middle order and we have Clive Rice at number 4. Agonisingly he was selected for the 1971-72 tour of Australia that never happened. So instead concentrated on a thriving career with Nottinghamshire where he led them to the County Championship title twice. Rice had a massive presence and his stats are wildly impressive. In a first class career he scored 26,000 runs with an average of 40 and 48 centuries. A sound medium pace bowler Rice took 930 wickets at an average of 22. He also took over 400 catches to complete the demonstration of a complete all-rounder; irrefutable evidence of a special player whose best years were lost during the ban.
Perhaps controversial and a wildcard at number 5 is Kepler Wessels, who in 1976 would have been a child of tender years at just nineteen. However, Wessels already had three seasons with Orange Free State under his belt and had just joined Sussex as an opening bat. He went on to enjoy a wonderfully varied career playing 24 tests for Australia and a further 16 for South Africa. He was a whizz kid with raw potential who might just have made the cut.
Anchor of the middle order would be Mike Proctor of Gloucestershire; a colossus with bat and ball. He had just broken into the test side when the ban was imposed. In 7 test matches he took 41 wickets at an average of 15 with only his batting prowess to emerge at test level. He starred for Gloucester over a period of 16 years and took an awesome 1,417 first class wickets. His batting achievements were more modest with an average score of 36 but still managed 48 centuries. I have clear memories of BBC2’s coverage of the John Player League on Sunday afternoons; and Proctor steaming down the wicket to claim a hattrick. An inspirational player and like so many featured here an automatic selection.
The position of wicket-keeper is a more taxing dilemma. Whilst pre-ban internationals Dennis Gamsy and Dennis Lindsay might stake a claim, I would hand the gloves to Ray Jennings. In a twenty year career with the Transvaal sides he took 567 catches and 54 stumpings. Jennings was also a useful batsman scoring over 4,000 runs with a top score of 168. He is further proof the apple never falls far from the tree; his son Keaton plays for Lancashire and is a current England international.
The lower order would begin with Norman Featherstone, an off-spinner who scored 12 first class centuries. In a long career with Middlesex Smokey maintained an extremely tidy bowling average of 27. At number 9 is Garth Le Roux, a pace bowler with real power and menace. He played for Sussex between 1978 and 1987 taking 393 wickets at an average of 23. An added bonus was Le Roux’s ability with the bat. He once scored 83 and compiled a highly creditable batting average of 28.
Following him at number 10 we have Vintcent van der Bijl. Like Clive Rice he was selected for the same aborted tour of Australia in 1971-72. Interestingly, van der Bijl qualified as a teacher and played as an amateur for Natal. He eventually quit teaching and subsequently had one season with Middlesex in 1980. It was a very good year as helped them to the County Championship and victory in the Gillette Cup. An excellent medium pace bowler he took over 767 wickets at an average of 16. No slouch with the bat either; van der Bijl top scored 87 with an average of 16. The number 11 would be Rupert Hanley, a pace bowler in the same mould as Le Roux. Hanley had one season at Northamptonshire in 1984; and with 408 wickets and an average of 20 he was another great talent lost to test cricket.
This team has mind blowing potential consisting of players who would all have been at their peak in 1976. The only exceptions would be Wessels and Jennings as young bucks making their debut. Whilst Barlow, Rice and Proctor captained their respective counties, it could only really be Graeme Pollock as skipper. An embarrassment of riches would have been available to him; seven frontline bowlers providing a variation of pace and spin; Le Roux and Hanley opening the bowling with Mike Proctor as first change?
Fragments of this team did actually play together in a number of unofficial games. Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket tournaments in the late 70s featured sides playing under the South African banner. Similarly, rebel teams from England, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Australia played South Africa in the 1980s. But the rebel tag that clung to these games denied them any shred of credibility.
With the evils of apartheid consigned to the history books South Africa’s sporting rehabilitation seems complete. However, there are still residual effects of isolation. Tony Greig, Allan Lamb and Robin Smith all enjoyed England test careers. Would they have not chosen their country of birth had things been different? Players straddling the end of the ban were also affected; Allan Donald lost the first five years of his test career and might have been nudging towards 500 test wickets instead of 330. Contemplating the ifs takes us down a rabbit hole of possibilities; but also provides the opportunity to imagine the greatest test side never to take the field.