An honourable cricketer

August 12 2002 / New Statesman

Perhaps only the most ardent cricket fans will know of Robert Bailey, who announced his retirement from the county game this month. Unlike David Gower, he has never appeared on a television game show. Never, like Geoffrey Boycott, written a column in the Sun, or, like Ian Botham, been asked to endorse anything from breakfast cereal to the anti-euro campaign. He has never been a regular on Test Match Special - which, in any event, increasingly resembles nothing so much as a prep school tea party.

A tall, hard-hitting batsman, he played cricket professionally for 22 seasons, for Northamptonshire and, most recently, for Derbyshire. He spent his final days in the second XI, performing before a dozen or so spectators, and his retirement passed largely unreported - I learnt of it only after reading a short item on Ceefax. Yet Robert Bailey was a cricketing hero, the only player of his generation who refused the opportunity to tour apartheid South Africa as a highly paid member of a “rebel” England squad.

In 1989, as England were being thrashed by Australia during a long, miserable summer, South African agents were in Britain recruiting for a second rebel tour (the first had taken place in 1981-82). Some of the finest English cricketers of the era, notably Graham Gooch and John Emburey, went on that original tour, as well as ageing mercenaries such as Boycott. The punishment for taking the South African rand was a four-year ban from international cricket, which meant that Gooch was in effect banished to the wilderness of the county circuit during potentially the best years of his career. But he had his money as consolation.

This week, I spoke to Robert Bailey. That summer, he said, he was offered £100,000 tax-free to spend one winter in the sun as a rebel cricketer. He was not a member of the England squad, though he hoped to be, and here was an opportunity to earn what was, for a county cricketer (the average salary was about £8,000 per year) a life-transforming fee.

Bailey’s dream - something he shared with every youngster with an enthusiasm for sport - was to represent his country. Could he risk going to South Africa and thus deprive himself of the chance of fulfilling his greatest ambition? Many of England’s brightest young cricketers of the day - Matthew Maynard, Alan Wells, Paul Jarvis - as well as established Test players such as Emburey (yes, him again), Mike Gatting and Neil Foster, who were that summer competing so abjectly against the Australians, were also offered the chance to tour the apartheid state. They all accepted (as the only player to go on two rebel tours, the disgrace of Emburey is total). But Bailey alone refused.

I did not ask, during our conversation, if his decision was founded on moral opposition to the repugnant apartheid regime - because, I think, I already knew the answer. His was less a political than a romantic decision: he was consumed by the dream of playing for his country. “There was no way I could go,” he said. “To go was to be banned. I couldn’t let that happen.”

In the event, Bailey never established himself as a Test cricketer, playing only four times for England. Does he now regret not going to South Africa? “I played for England, I went on one tour to the West Indies, and I had 22 fantastic years as a pro. I made the right decision.”

As for the future, he plans to become an umpire. We should wish Bailey well and remember him not only as a fine cricketer, but also as one who brought dignity and grace to the English summer game during that terrible year of disgrace and betrayal.