x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Omar Henry on how sport can clear all boundaries

South Africa's first non-white Test cricketer has 'strength in diversity' and discusses racial representation with Paul Radley.

South Africa's first non-white international player, Omar Henry, is now working hard teaching cricket to children of all colours.
South Africa's first non-white international player, Omar Henry, is now working hard teaching cricket to children of all colours.

After 40 minutes of reminiscing about life as South Africa's first non-white international cricketer, and pondering his nation's imminent domination of the global game, Omar Henry finally utters a negative thought. "There were a minority group of people who were anti-Omar Henry at the time, for various reasons," he recalls of the day he was selected for the national squad. It was a time when a country emerging from the shroud of apartheid was preparing for transition.

Henry bears no grudge. "I understood their views, purely because of our backgrounds," he adds. "I knew the focus of the majority of the non-white people was on me. Can he get that Test call? What kind of role model will he be? What kind of ambassador will he be? "You must remember that the political struggle took various ways of dismantling. Our focus was different in how to dismantle this evil. There was a physical dismantling, of fighting fire with fire, of blowing things up and killing people. Others went to jail, like Nelson Mandela and all those comrades.

"People like myself used our strength - sport - and instead of a boycott, we went inside, and fought it from inside by proving that we were good enough to compete. We wanted to show that our selection could be based on merit and performances, not on colour. "Eventually, it was time that would bring us all together, from whatever different mindsets we had during those dark days. In terms of that, we have come a long way."

As the elevator doors opened into the lobby of the Chelsea Towers hotel ahead of the interview, Henry was obscured from view by three young men who looked nearer to the start of their teens than the end of them. Two were white, with blond hair, while the leader of the group was black. As members of the Cape Cobras emerging cricketers squad, they had just listened to their first team talk from their tour manager, the man at the back of the lift.

Some of the playing squad were not born when, 19 years ago, Henry became the first player of colour to represent South Africa. None of them lived through apartheid. How the world has changed since Henry, who is now 58, was their age. "Those were the very darkest days of South Africa, where non-whites never had opportunities," he says of his teenaged years, when a route to professional cricket for a coloured player appeared non-existent.

"Sport - cricket, rugby, football, table-tennis, tennis - was played with a passion and a commitment, with very little opportunity, very little funding, and very below-par facilities." Of the sporting options open to him as a career, cricket was the least likely. Historically, the sport had been the preserve of the English South Africans. Meanwhile, the Afrikaners had their rugby, the blacks their football, and never the twain should meet. Certainly not on the cricket field.

Henry captained his town's football team aged 18, but had his head turned towards cricket by the most influential figure in the history of South African cricket, Basil D'Oliveira. D'Oliveira was a fellow non-white who had left his homeland to make a living from the game in England. His subsequent rise through village cricket to the Test team of his adopted country put him on a collision course with authority, which eventually changed the face of world sport.

When England's 1968 tour to South Africa was cancelled on account of the inclusion of a non-white player, it put into motion the wheels of change, culminating in their isolation from international cricket. A year later, the country was formally excluded from the Olympics. All the while, D'Oliveira coached cricket back at home, and by coincidence conducted a class at the teenaged Henry's school. "He came and coached me, then pulled me aside and said, 'Look, you should see how you can get to England'.

"That evening the town had a function for him. He spoke to my parents and wanted me to leave South Africa at the time, but my parents refused. The seed had been planted in my head. It made my decision for me that cricket was the path that I had to follow." Again, Henry bears no malice at being deprived the chance to travel by his parents. "You have to remember that they were brought up in the worst part of apartheid. Their mindset was really different, and the way they regarded the world was different. It was very difficult for me to object at the time of the refusal, but I held on to that idea.

"I made a silent commitment that by the time I had matured enough, I would give it a go and go to England. That eventually materialised at the age of 24." As D'Oliveira had done before him, Henry went to play league cricket in Lancashire. He followed the path already trodden by his mentor - or a version of it, at least - as he, too, represented an adopted nation. In Henry's case, he moved to Scotland, where he played for 13 years, and even captained and coached the emerging national team.

When South Africa were re-admitted to the international sphere in 1991, Henry was faced with another choice. Despite losing the prime of his playing days due to state repression, the left-arm spinner made the decision to move back to try to make the newly re-assembled national side. "At the age of 40 my time might have gone," he says. "I thought I had an outside chance. If I was not going to give it a go, I would never know.

"I packed up in Scotland, where my children had been born and did their schooling, and came back home - permanently." Playing in a young and highly successful Orange Free State side alongside future greats like Allan Donald and Hansie Cronje, Henry put himself into the shop window. He was named in a 25-man probables side, and when he made the final cut after that was whittled down to 11 for a Test against India, his life changed for good.

"When the season ended, I was driving with my family down to Cape Town, just as the team was selected. My whole family was with me. It was such an emotional moment that I had to stop to absorb everything. We were crying and laughing and celebrating, and people thought we were mad. "Then they realised who I was and why I was celebrating, and they joined in. It was chaos on the road. "South Africa made a U-turn, and made a really courageous move at the time. It could have ended up in a much more negative way - there could have been a political revolution at that time. I think they used sport really cleverly, to bring the nation together."

For all the progress that has been made, we are still sat debating racial representation nearly two decades on. In the XI for their most recent Test match, against India, there were four non-whites. Is it enough? "No, four is not enough - but it was a target that proved it can be achieved," asserts Henry. The captain of his Cobras touring side here this weekend, Omphile Ramela, hails from Soweto, the Johannesburg township which is a mine for footballing talent, yet has no pedigree for cricket.

Henry instigated his move down south, when he spotted him while watching his own son play in a schools tournament. In his then role as the head coach of Stellensbosch University, Henry enrolled him in studies and, within two years, Ramela had become the first black player to captain the University side. All of which goes to prove, despite the obstacles, it can be done. "Our biggest challenge is, can we drive it successfully and increase the amount of people who participate, especially the non-white people who are still poor? Cricket is an expensive game.

"When you play international cricket, it is almost a world on its own. You get put on a pedestal, you live in the best hotels, you eat the best food, you have so many privileges. "The difference is like day and night between that and living in a township. It is a test. "I believe if we find the strength in diversity that we have, we could dominate world cricket. It actually makes me very excited thinking about it and talking about it."

pradley@thenational.ae