From a purely cricketing perspective the summer of 1970 was probably anticipated more eagerly than the 2020 season, whereupon there was turmoil and a cancellation of the Test tour that left a great chunk of the cricketing community in despair.
The disruption then seems like a pinprick compared with today’s situation, but the bitterness engendered in 1970 was on a monumental scale. The best side in the world were due to tour England; the problem was the best side were South Africa.
Like today, the situation required government intervention, but the virus in question was of a different kind in 1970: the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 2020, cricket eagerly awaits permission from Westminster to start playing again; 50 years ago it was a Labour government that eventually made it impossible for the planned schedule of the summer’s cricket to go ahead.
Eighteen months earlier, England’s tour to South Africa had in effect been cancelled by the apartheid country’s prime minister, Dr John Vorster, the final act in a compelling melodrama we know as the D’Oliveira affair.
Basil D’Oliveira had been the unwitting protagonist and just about the only person to come out of the controversy with his reputation intact. In 1968, the MCC and its selection panel had contrived to enrage the liberals in England and the diehard supporters of apartheid in South Africa within the space of a few weeks, a remarkable double.
Now it was the turn of South Africa, who had recently thrashed Australia, to visit England. The cricketing establishment was desperate the tour should go ahead – those were the days when the MCC was reckoned to be far to the right of the Tory party – but beyond the tight‑knit cricketing community ruled from within the portals of Lord’s there was massive opposition to the tour.
This was led by such eminent men as the Reverend David Sheppard, Lord Learie Constantine and Father Trevor Huddleston. From a different generation the 19-year-old Peter Hain organised the Stop the Tour Campaign with remarkable potency. The government was none too keen on the idea of the tour, either. In a television interview the prime minister, Harold Wilson, considered the MCC had made “a big mistake” in inviting the South Africa team – “a very ill-judged decision”. He said, with the proviso that any protests should not be violent: “Everyone should feel free to demonstrate against apartheid – I hope people will feel free to do so.” The bosses at Test grounds began investing in large quantities of barbed wire.
The situation was so grave it became the subject of an emergency debate in the House of Commons. Finally, on 21 May, less than two weeks before the tour was to start, the home secretary, Jim Callaghan, requested it should be cancelled “on the grounds of broad public policy”. This amounted to a government directive, so the Cricket Council had little choice but to agree, albeit reluctantly.
Within a week the Test and County Cricket Board had arranged matches between England and a Rest of the World side. And what a side they were. The team contained five South Africans, in the Pollock brothers, Barry Richards, Mike Procter and Eddie Barlow; it was led by Gary Sobers and decorated by the talents of Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd and Intikhab Alam, who were ever-presents in the side.
Guinness put up a handsome silver trophy and sponsorship to the tune of £20,000 and Edward Guinness CVO, today a remarkably active 95-year-old, was on hand at the Oval after the final game to present the trophy to Sobers, whose team, unsurprisingly, had won the series 4-1.
The first match began at Lord’s on the eve of the general election and England, who were led by Ray Illingworth, lost it by an innings and 80 runs thanks to Sobers, who took six for 21 in the first innings of the matchthen cracked 183 before taking two more wickets in the second innings.
At the time the England players were awarded caps, although the Test status of these matches was later rescinded, which dented the CV of one player especially. Alan Jones, a silky left-handed opener for Glamorgan for a quarter of a century, played at Lord’s and was never selected again. He was such a gentle soul there was hardly a murmur of complaint from him but the decision seemed to anger his Welsh fans far more.
England won the second match at Trent Bridge by eight wickets with Kent’s Brian Luckhurst, who forged a handy Test career after his performances in the series, hitting an unbeaten century in the second innings. Tony Greig, in his first match for England, and D’Oliveira shared 14 wickets.
The next three matches were all hard-fought and all ended in narrow victories for Sobers’s team at Edgbaston, Headingley and the Oval. There were some surprises along the way. Eddie Barlow, the irrepressible South African opening batsman, topped the bowling averages for the Rest of the World, taking 20 wickets at 19 apiece with his bustling, ever-optimistic medium-pacers; Greig did the same for England. Illingworth’s tally of 476 runs at an average of 52 was second only to that of Sobers (588 runs), which must have helped him retain the England captaincy for the winter’s Ashes tour; Peter Lever’s seven for 83 in the final match earned him a place on that trip.
After four Tests most of the overseas players had sparkled somewhere – except the great South Africaleft-hander Graeme Pollock. But at the Oval he enchanted the crowd, hitting a glorious century and sharing a 165-run partnership with Sobers. Wisden’s editor, rarely given to hyperbole, described this as a “feast of batsmanship”.
The season had been saved by the swift reaction to the cancellation of South Africa’s tour, some generous sponsorship and the eagerness of the best players in the world to seize the opportunity to display their talents. All that barbed wire could be sold on at a bargain rate to farmers or prison governors. It won’t be so easy this time around.