Review: The Unforgiven

The subtitle to The Unforgiven asks a question — Mercenaries or Missionaries? It is the reoccurring theme throughout this astonishing tale of the 20 West Indies cricketers who took part in two tours to apartheid South Africa in 1982/83 and 1983/84.

In the introduction author Ashley Gray looks at the events of forty years ago to explain how South Africa had become isolated from sporting contact and how they desperately turned to staging 'rebel' tours in order to their desire for international competition. Mike Gatting had led a team of English players, many of whom had either played for England or been on the fringes of the Test team, on a very controversial eight-game tour of the Republic in early 1982. Encouraged by what they perceived to be a minor success, the South Africans led by Ali Bacher then turned their attentions on the West Indies-a much bigger prize.

In a paper presented to West Indies' governments in 1982, captain Clive Lloyd warned that 'several West Indies players, many who do not have a secure playing future when their playing days are over, may be tempted by these offers (from South Africa)'.

Lloyd was right, and it's easy to see why. At the time players received less than $1,000 per Test and Bacher was offering contracts worth US$100,000 or more. Even so, the outrage when news of the first tour broke was widespread and far-reaching. Accused of pocketing 'blood money' from a regime that discriminated against people of their own colour, the 'rebels' received life bans from the West Indies board and in many cases, they were shunned by their fellow countrymen.

The tours split families, destroyed life-long friendships and resulted in some of the players seeking futures outside of the Caribbean. Austin has travelled extensively to meet and talk to the players about the tours and chronicle the effect it had on their lives. Most, but not all, were willing to talk, but to hear their view of the tours is instructive.

Were they mercenaries or missionaries? It's a controversial question even now. Most of the players Gray spoke to believe the tours changed the opinion of white South Africans about what black people could achieve, although there is also an acknowledgement from a number of them that they went just for the money, even if they were greatly troubled by their decision. The author gives a wider perspective from the Caribbean region by including the views of the player's family, friends, adversaries, contemporaries and the wider West Indies cricket fraternity.

What emerges is a human story of young men being faced with a huge life-changing decision under enormous pressure. Some managed to cope and prosper while some did not. The Unforgiven is a rivetting account of their stories.

Ken Grime

The Unforgiven by Ashley Gray
Pitch Publishing £19.99

Long listed in the Cricket Writers' Club's prestigious Derek Hodgson Cricket Book Award for 2020.

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