Cricket Controversy: Yorkshire, Sobers and touring Rhodesia

The Ashes summer has ended 1 and again it has been a successful one for England’s cricketers. It was another series of controversy with technology, player behaviour, and the spirit of the game questioned. Cricket has long been a sport with its fair share of controversies, ranging from match fixing and boycotts to Boycott. One such flashpoint regarded the decision of Sir Garfield St Aubyn Sobers (or Gary) to play an exhibition match in Rhodesia, in 1970.

Fiji-West Indies Cricket match at Albert Park, Suva, Fiji - early 1950s (CO 1069/652/13)

Fiji-West Indies Cricket match at Albert Park, Suva, Fiji - early 1950s (CO 1069/652/13)

I have written previously about Ian Smith’s government’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence for Rhodesia in 1965, which had recriminations in British political circles for some years, repercussions even stretched to the cricketing world. In September 1967 – shortly after their county championship victory – Yorkshire were invited by the authorities in Salisbury (now Harare) to tour the country.

In a file available here at The National Archives (FCO 36/324) The Secretary of State for the Commonwealth Relations Office, George Thomas, was informed by staff that ‘[Her Majesty’s Government’s] policy has always been to deplore organised sporting tours of Rhodesia while the state of illegality exists and to attempt to dissuade those teams which proposed to make tours of this kind.’

Subsequently, Thomas wrote to some Yorkshire MPs ‘in confidence’ to express his ‘deep anxiety’ about the tour. He was concerned about possible damage to relations with ‘Afro-Asian peoples’ and that the tourists ‘…would be bringing comfort and encouragement to those who have rebelled against The Queen’s Authority.’ Indeed, even Prime Minister Harold Wilson suggested that Rhodesia was moving towards an Apartheid regime.

The file seems to include attempts by the Commonwealth Relations Office to compile evidence of this move towards increased segregation, including one newspaper cutting from Rhodesia which claimed that ‘European Government schools’ had been ordered not to hold multiracial sports fixtures unless the school advisory council or parents had been specifically consulted.

However, the vast majority of the papers were letters written by irate cricket fans in despair that a tour had been placed in doubt due to a political decision. One objector wrote about the ‘shameful interference of the Commonwealth Office’ and how the decision ‘…shows how left-wing politics destroy the milk of human kindness, and make bad blood between brothers’, while another wrote ironically of not wishing to send any hand-knitted booties to Rhodesia to ensure she did not ‘give comfort to Mr Smith’.

A third correspondent became a little side-tracked: ‘Look at America…so-called liberalism with black people does not pay off…I am no racialist but I have seen whole areas of Halifax taken over by Pakistanis whist the whites move out.’

As it was, Yorkshire eventually decided to not tour, a point that was in many ways moot because Ken Bates’s Oldham Athletic Football Club had already toured Rhodesia earlier in the year.

All of which makes fascinating context for Sobers’s decision to play in Rhodesia just a few years later. Another file (FCO 63/389) details the strength of feeling this decision elicited in the Caribbean, with the Prime Minister of Guyana, Forbes Burnham, stating that Sobers should be stripped of the West Indies captaincy and claimed that ‘he would be unwelcome in Guyana.’

A particularly strong newspaper headline proclaimed Sobers as an ‘Afro-Saxon of the first order of St Michael and St George’. A high price to pay for a £600 fee and the failure to win a double-wicket competition. The storm only blew over once Sobers released a very contrite message some days after his return.

And so, Sobers was able to continue his remarkable career, and establish himself –in many people’s eyes – as the greatest all-rounder in the history of the game. In the short-term, he was welcomed in Guyana, scoring an unbeaten 108 in Georgetown in the drawn test against India in March 1971, and in the long-term had his legendary status further embellished by the award of a knighthood for services to cricket, in 1975 (FCO 57/606).

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  1. 1. Don’t worry, the next one starts in just shy of three months.

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