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Cricket's assault on Australian racism


Frank WorrellGrowing up in a profoundly Celtic household, I was aware from a very early age of the labyrinth of inoffensive but powerful superstitions that intermittently governed the lives of my uncles, aunts and, especially my grandmother.

In Dublin years ago, a cab driver, having confirmed that I was Australian, asked me if I had any Irish lineage, and I said, ‘My grandmother came from Cork,’ and he nodded with weary tolerance and said, ‘Yes, they all do.’

She really did though and, in the crowded house of which she was the benign dictator except when my father came home on leave, she was the source and curator of a whole world of lore that she in her turn had grown up with in Ireland – what to do when you passed a funeral; turning the calendar page early; a picture falling from the wall; dealing with spilt salt; tripping over in a cemetery; and, of course, among many others, Friday the thirteenth.

This is the one I remember best from those days probably because that baleful date really did come round now and then, but I also recall that it was usually a bit of a fizz. The tabloids would make something of it, but as for good, honest-to-God bad luck and evil circumstance, it was rarely up to much – not to the sensation seeking gaze of a small boy anyway. Age and maturity put a lot of healthy superstitions in their place and so numerous Friday the thirteenths have passed me by without a flicker until just recently when, because of some reading I’ve been doing, Friday 13 March 2015 struck a chord. It was the forty-eighth anniversary of the death of Frank Worrell.

One of the greatest of all West Indian cricketers, Worrell was a brilliant batsman, a fine bowler, a quintessential all-rounder. Though he did not have the magnificent natural gifts of his team mates – Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott, the other two famous ‘Ws’ – or the outrageously abundant talents of the up-and-coming Garfield Sobers, Worrell was a natural leader, a unifying and inspiring figure towards whom his team felt unshakable loyalty and commitment.

His many obvious qualifications for the captaincy of the West Indies cricket team, however, were seen in the 1950s to be outweighed by one serious disadvantage. He was black and it was assumed that the Cricket Board would re-appoint wicketkeeper-batsman Gerry Alexander as captain on the 1960-61 Australian tour.

But Worrell had a powerful and articulate ally in C. L. R. James whose Beyond a Boundary is one of the finest and most famous cricket books ever written. As editor from 1958 of The Nation, the newspaper of the People’s National Movement party, James set out, in his own words, ‘to dislodge the mercantile-planter class from automatic domination of West Indies cricket.’ For mercantile planters read whites.

The dislodgement program was direct and unequivocal. The argument against Alexander left no room for ambiguity – one of James’s pieces in The Nation was headlined ‘Alexander Must Go’. His argument for change was likewise direct and uncluttered: ‘The best and most experienced [player] should be captain. What has the shade of one’s skin anything to do with it?’

In The Nation for 4 March 1960, James geared up his campaign for Worrell to lead the West Indies tour to Australia: ‘Frank Worrell is at the peak of his reputation not only as a cricketer but as a master of the game. Respect for him has never been higher in all his long and brilliant career.’ With what we can now see as uncanny prescience, James argued that Australians also would want to greet Worrell as captain. ‘Thousands will come out on every ground to see an old friend leading the West Indies. In fact, I am able to say that if Worrell were captain … the coming tour would be one of the greatest ever.’

Well, thousands did come out to see Worrell and his team, it was indeed ‘one of the greatest ever’ test cricket tours, and thousands farewelled them in Melbourne with one of the most extraordinary displays of public affection and admiration ever seen in that highly sports aware city. As if it wasn’t triumph enough for Frank Worrell to have been the first black man to captain the West Indies through a test series, his predominantly black team had transfixed Australians across the country and had, without any missionary intent, struck a resounding blow at the White Australia Policy, which was still in place.

It is a jubilant, exciting story but also, for two reasons, a poignant one. First, only a few years later at the youthful age of 43, Worrell died of leukaemia. And second, is it not poignant, even shaming, to ask – when our government, with the apparent approval of the electorate and the meek endorsement of the opposition, prides itself on ‘detaining’ or turning away refugees and asylum seekers – would such a moving demonstration of international camaraderie and affection be possible in our time?

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, cricket, Frank Worrell, racism, White Australia Policy, sport, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

The fact that in 1960-61 the West Indian cricket team was so enthusiastically welcomed by ordinary Australians puts the lie to continual attempts to denigrate Australians as racist. These same ordinary Australian citizens have mostly welcomed refugees over many decades provided they come in accordance with government programmes rather that at the behest of people smugglers. It’s worth remembering that the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party was the first political party to oppose the White Australia policy, and Bob Santamaria’s National Civic Council that campaigned in the 1970s to get a reluctant Fraser government to accept Vietnamese refugees. However virtually every Left-wing group attacked Vietnamese refugees: “f…ing Vietnamese Balts” (Gough Whitlam); “racketeers, drug-peddlers and, in some cases, prostitutes” (Clyde Cameron); “not genuine refugees” (Brian Burke, future ALP Premier); “Hawke: Return Bogus Refugees” (The Australian, November 29, 1977); “racketeers and profit-gougers” (Resistance, newspaper of Socialist Youth Alliance); “right-wing people organizing private armies” and “fascists…criminals and queue-jumpers” (Tribune, communist party newspaper); and when the Shell tanker, the “Entalina”, rescued 150 drowning refugees and took them to Darwin the waterside workers went on strike and maintained that the ship would not leave Darwin if the refugees were allowed to remain in Australia.

Ross Howard | 26 March 2015  

I am not a cricket tragic - that honour is reserved for tennis - but I have a little knowledge of cricket. Frank Worrell was indeed a very fine cricketer and the fact that he inspired such loyalty and commitment from his teammates is testament to that. The West Indies continue to be a force in world cricket even though this World Cup did not result in reaching the finals. Sport is a great leveller and achievements can be measured by performance and talent and not on any other basis.

Pam | 27 March 2015  

A terrible wrong has been done in Australia through imposing systematic discrimination against minorities and still ensuring these dark skinned people do not enjoy full citizenship. Color, race, gender are a God given gift and not a mark that accords a special status to any, yet we struggle to even find one white Australian to admit it. As you maybe aware, Australia is the only Western democracy in the world not to have Bill of Rights or national statutory Charter of Rights. The laws are created by white Australians for whites Australians. There are 2 laws in Australia, one for whites and one for blacks. The current Australian systems continue to ensure white prestige, security and self belief at the expense of the dark skinned person.

Jackie | 27 March 2015  

Gough Whitlam; Bob Hawke; Brian Burke: all Left-wingers? Dr Matthew's has written a sanguine piece, perhaps it's too sanguine since I think that racism -- in most, if not all, levels of our society -- has been a pervasive character of Australia. But Ross Howard seems more intent on urging a DLP view of history than making any serious points. This is shown by his glib use of that politician's lie about "people-smugglers". Presumably he would use the same term to describe those who offered paid-for help to assist Jews who wanted to escape from Hitler's Reich. Furthermore, we have international (not to mention humanitarian) obligations to assist refugees and out "government programs" ought to be formulated accordingly. The truth is that we didn't really want to accept those refugees from Hitler (and often made them pay "entry-fees"); like dark-skinned people today they were "different" and, accordingly, inferior. Welcoming talented and entertaining cricketers is quite a different matter and we need to be careful about our extrapolations. Finally, and especially on the day of Malcolm Fraser's State Funeral, I think that it is false and demeaning of Mr Howard to characterise him (and his government) as "reluctant" in his attitude to Vietnamese refugees at the end of the war there. I'd suggest that "magnanimous" might be the preferable word.

Dr John CARMODY | 27 March 2015  

Ross, Your letter alludes to the fact that the liberal left-the self styled progressives- welcome refugees from any where but not those fleeing from left leaning regimes. Hence the hatred of those Vietnamese trying to escape from the Viet Cong back in the 1980s. Thanks for reminding us of this; another inconsistency of those who like to think of themselves as some kind of intellectual elite.

grebo | 27 March 2015  

Cricket in Australia was not enlightened by the Worell led tour and today's coach Lehmann was sanctioned when a player for calling opponents " black c****s". The racist sledging continues with current player Warner lightly reprimanded for demanding an opponent "speak English'. Thanks Brian Pound

Brian Pound | 27 March 2015  

Dr John Carmody asserts that the term “people smugglers” is a “politician’s lie.” It is a term commonly used by the media, by refugees, and by the Federal Police. In 2012 Four Corners exposed people-smugglers who had fraudulently obtained refugee status and were operating from Canberra. A refugee informant told of “Captain Emad” who had been sent to Australia by Jakata-based smuggling kingpin Abu Ali al-Kuwaiti. “Emad, he’s the head of the smugglers” said the informant. After the program aired “Captain Emad” fled Australia and Australian Federal Police chief commissioner said that the Australian government was “very serious about people-smuggling and it is treated as a serious crime.” (The Australian, June 7, 2012) Dr Carmody then asserts that it is false to characterise the Fraser government as “reluctant”. Rachel Stevens wrote of a government “resistant, ambivalent…motivated principally by external factors.” (SMH, February 2, 2012). Greg Sheridan who campaigned for the National Civic Council on behalf of Vietnamese refugees writes, “The Fraser government was reluctant and slow to accept Vietnamese refugees” and did so because of “US foreign policy pressure, and to a lesser extent Southeast Asian pressure, as Lee Kuan Yew attests in his memoirs.” (The Australian, March 26, 2015)

Ross Howard | 27 March 2015  

I was going to hotly dispute the thesis of this post that Australia is a racist country. Mainly because Prof Matthews’ contention that Australia “prides” itself on turning back refugees and asylum seekers is both incorrect and unjust. Australia takes in more than 10,000 refugees a year from all over the world (the quota to increase in the years ahead) and provides a place of asylum to bona fide seekers. Under the Coalition government this process has been carried out in such a way that has prevented the deaths at sea of hundreds of would-be boat people. Personally, I think accepting refugees and asylum seekers in a way that prevents drownings is highly commendable … but that’s just my opinion. Since reading this piece, however, events surrounding the NSW election have made me suspect Prof Matthews is on to something and that there is a bit of racism still lurking in Australia. The NSW Labor party did its best to stir up anti-Chinese fears in the closing weeks. (To the credit of the average NSW voter, this backfired disastrously.) Today (Monday March 30) we hear Labor commentators denouncing the blatantly racist campaign – but (Martin Ferguson one of the heroic exceptions) only AFTER the election has been decided. Then there was that horrific spectacle of leftist “peace studies” professor Jake Lynch jew-baiting a 70 year old woman at Sydney University, and the University doing nothing about it. So it seems racism in Australia is still a tradeable commodity … for some on the left.

HH | 30 March 2015  

My New Years Resolution not to bite at Double H’s bait is out the window. “The NSW Labor party did its best to stir up anti-Chinese fears in the closing weeks.” What rot. Baird won the election fairly, honourably and in my opinion justifiably, since I don’t think Labor’s wilderness experience following Obeid et al should end yet. I did not see racism during the campaign from either of the major parties and certainly not from the leaders. The Sydney Morning Herald editorial of 30 March is a far more balanced assessment of the election and, funny, it doesn’t use the “R” word at all. The final sentence, well, it says more of Double H’s bias and attempts to smear than any reasoned analysis of latent racism in Australia.

Brett | 31 March 2015  

No racism by NSW Labor in the recent elections? Not according to former leader, Mark Latham: “In 2015, at the poll two days ago, the party campaigned on keeping Chinese investment out of the NSW electricity network – a disgustingly racist, dog-whistling pitch to Hansonite voters… The other guilty party is Jamie Clements, the deeply cynical, logrolling NSW campaign director who masterminded Labor’s anti-Chinese advertising blitz… Foley jumped the shark politically, urging ASIO to investigate potential Chinese investors on the spurious grounds that, “you can transport data along the high voltage (power) line"… This is the rampant NSW Labor disease: a say anything, do anything, whatever it takes ethos that allows leaders to junk longstanding principles such as racial tolerance in search of a handful of votes in marginal seats” [Mark Latham, Financial Review, March 30, 2015]

Ross Howard | 31 March 2015  

Thank you Ross for quoting Mark Latham's opinion. He is certainly entitled to believe that if he wants, but it is not a view shared by other political commentators, including many of the Liberals who aired their views after the election. Negative campaigning and scare tactics were in play to be sure... from both sides I would say if you look at the "alleged" smear campaign against Labor in East Hills. That is part of politics but it doesn't indicate racism, just unsavoury politics. With so much at stake there were hard politics from both sides, but the racism tag is thrown around far too glibly. It is interesting that some can only see it from one side, eg a tradeable commodity for some on the left, and your own contribution. Perhaps a bit more balance and self-assessment and removing the mote from one's own eye would help?

Brett | 02 April 2015  

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