“I didn’t think there would be consequences.” In a book replete with uncomfortable narratives of ourselves as Caribbean people, that line from Bernard Julien in relation to his participation in the two “rebel” tours of apartheid South Africa by a squad of West Indian cricketers from 1983 to 1984 jumps out.
Maybe it appears particularly significant because he was the only Trini of the 20 players over the two campaigns to make the unsanctioned trips (Larry Gomes backed out at the last moment). Indeed, there’s a lot to digest in the book The Unforgiven: Mercenaries or Missionaries?
It is the culmination of at least 20 years of extensive travelling, research, interviews and observation by Australian Ashley Gray and presents a body of work which none of us in the region have ever managed to get around to—we just don’t seem all that interested in telling our own stories beyond the all-positive public relations-type versions—and which should be mandatory reading for anyone genuinely interested, not just in first-person accounts of one of the most turbulent periods in Caribbean cricket history, but also unvarnished perspectives on what the game and life in these parts can represent beyond the glamourous, flattering images.
For the record, I was forwarded an advance copy of the book by Gray (the kindle version is available on Amazon with the hard copy out from August 1) which features what could only be described as my less-than-flattering comments about Julien.
But back to the former all-rounder’s extremely naiive suggestion that he could participate in such an exercise, at a time when global sporting boycotts of the racist regime were all the rage, and return to business as usual, especially as a team comprising predominantly players of African descent was viewed by opponents of apartheid as a particularly outrageous act of betrayal of the discriminated black majority in South Africa.
Julien’s patent inability to appreciate the context of his actions is not unique to the left-arm swing bowler and right-handed batsman who carried the onerous mantle as the “next Gary Sobers” at the start of his international career in 1973 with genuine substance and style before the swift, inexorable decline just four years later. With a chapter devoted to each rebel tourist (even those who were evasive like Julien or refused to say anything at all like Colin Croft), this is a book which meets former cricketers at various stages of reconciliation: some still living in denial, others with axes to grind —Alvin Kallicharran’s blade is especially sharp —and a few accepting ownership of a contentious decision and moving on with their lives.
Sadly, it also tells the posthumous tale of Richard Austin, another brilliant all-rounder, who was the victim of his own human frailties, a toxic inner-city Kingston environment and, as Gray describes it, “Jamaica’s own expedient moral consciousness.” Austin, who dominated Trinidad and Tobago in a Shell Shield match in 1978 to the extent of innings of 88 and 56 at the top of the order and match figures of 12 for 116 (eight for 71 bowling off-spin in the second innings) which vaulted him to a Test debut against Australia at the same Queen’s Park Oval ground a few weeks later, died in 2015 after years of destitution and abuse of cocaine and marijuana.
What these stories tell, beyond the specifics of the individual players, are the perils and pitfalls of what we now describe as living in a bubble: a world of your own where nary a discouraging word is heard and anything remotely critical is perceived as a personal attack by someone with the sole agenda of bringing you down.
It is a situation even more relevant today than 37 years ago when that first rebel squad sneaked out of the Caribbean and landed at Jan Smuts (now Oliver Tambo) International Airport in Johannesburg, each with different justifications for their collective action.
Chris Gayle has within the last few days justified his public attack on former West Indies teammate Ramnaresh Sarwan as being “spoken from the heart” and intended solely to explain to the fans in Jamaica why he has left the Tallawahs for a second time. His back-handed acknowledgement of the damage his comments may have done to the image of the Caribbean Premier League and Cricket West Indies has apparently been enough for the CPL to now consider the matter closed while CWI has yet to comment on the decision.
Right or wrong, justifiable or not, the broader issue is not about guilt or punishment or lack thereof, but the cocoons we create for ourselves, only to watch those deceptively comforting enclaves disintegrate to the sheer force of conflicting and compromised reality, as many of the rebel West Indians are still experiencing.
Is it really so hard just to say sorry?