Friday, November 26, 2010

Remembering the "A-Team", part 2

Part Two of a Three-Part special feature commemorating the silver anniversary of the Australians Rebel Tour of South Africa from 1985-87.

The first inklings that Australians could go to South Africa became apparent in late 1984. Australian cricket was going through a tumultuous rebirth after the retirements of Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh and in their last Test series had been defeated 3-0 in the West Indies. in their next matches they were again to face the fearsome Windies pace attack, at home during the summer of 1984-85. Not much is known about the early machinations as they were administered with the utmost secrecy: any discovery of being tempted by the devil that was South African sport would mean farewelling a normal life a year early among other penalties that conscientious objectors or even the general public dish out to any potential tourists.

As the summer ended, it was announced that an Australian team would tour South Africa in the summer of 1985-86 and again in 1986-87. Preparations for the 1985 Ashes tour were thrown into disarray as seven of the Ashes squad were also in the South African tour party, including two of Australia's premiere pacemen, Carl Rackemann and Terry Alderman. All the members of the South African touring party were banned from competing in both Sheffield Shield and Test cricket for three years.

Of those seven, four remained "loyal" to the Australian cricket board, one of whom - tweaker Murray Bennett - had a serious conscience attack. The other three, opener Graeme Wood, batsman Dirk Wellham and 'keeper Wayne Phillips offered the same reason but had apparently been fiscally persuaded to resist the lure of the South African rand. Former Australian captain Kim Hughes had not been selected for the Ashes tour while rejecting overtures to skipper the side to South Africa. On discovering that the ACB had effectively paid off three players to remain with the establishment, he became disillusioned with the board and accepted the leadership of the tour party, citing "the spirit of cricket" had been broken by the ACB in two-faced attitude to the rebels.

Dubbing themselves "The A-Team" after the hit TV show, the tourists comprised ten players who'd played Test cricket within the last two years and one, Trevor Hohns, who would later do so once his ban had expired. Plenty more of the tourists were likely to feature in the Australian team over the coming years had they "remained loyal". The Rebels probably sported a more impressive attack than the "loyalists", featuring the best two fast bowlers in the country (Hogg and Alderman) as well as incumbent wicketkeeper Rixon. Two former Test captains in Yallop and Hughes led the batsmen Kepler Wessels was the best opener in the land and a future South African skipper. Wessels joined the party's second leg when shunned by the ACB during contract negotiations for a perceived role in the organisation of the tour - a role he denies to this day and was tenuous at best at the time. He returned to play cricket in his homeland and reprensented the A-Team in "international" matches to strengthen a batting lineup not performing to its potential.

The results that the A-Team managed in South Africa were mixed. Only three of the tourists (four, including Wessels) played Test cricket again, Alderman, Rackemann and Hohns. Several stayed on past the duration of their contracts to play in the local First-Class competition and some even settled across the Indian Ocean, especially Hughes, South Australian Mike Haysman and Victorian Rod McCurdy.

There was only one rebel tour after the Australians departed the Cape, an England side led by Mike Gatting, announced during the 1989 Ashes series. That team were the last Rebel Tourists as with the end of apartheid, the Proteas were accepted back into international competition in 1991. The matches played currently don't have first-class status but is under ICC review as to whether they deserve that mantle.

It could be that the rebel tour, as disastrous as it was to the Australian cricket establishment in 1985 and as painful as it was to those suffering under the brutality of South African apartheid did some good for Australian cricket. With seventeen players banned from state and national selection, plenty of positions opened in the Australia setup for younger players when the ACB may have been tempted by re-treads such as Hughes, Hogan or Yallop. In the three years after the second great split in Australian cricket, the national team capped fifteen new players including Steve Waugh and Merv Hughes. For the Ashes the initial thoughts of the selectors went to experience provided by mediocre talents like Hilditch, Ritchie, Wood and Wellham but this was quickly replaced by the optimism of youth.

Those fifteen newbies played on average twenty-six Tests apiece, a number which decreases to 16 if you remove Waugh's gargantuan tally of 168. This newfound decrease in top-end depth meant a great opportunity for Australian youth to step up First Class cricket. Even if the Test results of the period didn't reflect it, the First-Class system by 1987 was the amongst the strongest in the world. Secondly, that Australia debuted and discarded several players only meant that the process of sorting the wheat from the chaff was infinitely more easy which, fit well with the Simpson/Border manifesto of: Definitely, Probably, Maybe.

1985-87 A-Team Rebel tourists: Kim Hughes (captain), Terry Alderman, John Dyson, Peter Faulkner, Mike Haysman, Tom Hogan, Rodney Hogg, Trevor Hohns, John Maguire, Rod McCurdy, Carl Rackemann, Steve Rixon, Greg Shipperd, Steve Smith, Mick Taylor, Kepler Wessels, (1986-87 only), Graham Yallop.

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