Over-50s World Cup Ambassador - Omar Henry

Omar Henry
Omar Henry (courtesy Getty Images)

The Over-50s World Cup in South Africa have announced five former greats of the game who will serve as the tournament’s ambassadors.

Mike Proctor, Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Omar Henry and Peter Kirsten will not be playing, but will be in attendance at the various functions, watching games and following the progress of all the teams closely.

Henry played three Tests and three ODIs for South Africa as a left-arm spinner and pugnacious left-handed batsman, and also served as convenor of selectors for the national side.

However, his legacy is primarily due to his status as the first non-white cricketer to play for South Africa following its post-Apartheid readmission.

Having made his first-class debut in 1973/74, he had to wait nearly 20 years for his taste of full international cricket, debuting at the age of 40 in the 1992 World Cup and taking 1/31 from 10 overs against Sri Lanka.

By this time he was towards the end of a distinguished career for Boland, Orange Free State, Western Province and Scotland. He took 443 first-class wickets at an excellent average of 25.17 and scored over 4 500 runs at 27 as well. In 153 List-A games he scored over 2 000 runs and took 125 wickets.

Henry faced many challenges during his career. He grew up in Stellenbosch, sharing a bedroom with six siblings and his parents and admiring the non-white cricket heroes of the day like Basil D’Oliveira.

From the uncovered stands allocated to non-whites, he saw Richards, Pollock, etc play against the touring Australians at Newlands. He had the opportunity to play in the Lancashire League in 1977, where he learned from the great left-arm spinners of the day like Bishan Bedi and Derek Underwood.

When he was finally included in the South African side to face the rebel Australian tourists of 1986/87, he was subjected to criticism from many corners: from traditionalists, from the player he replaced, and even from some elements within the non-white community, who considered him a traitor. He even faced death threats - armed guards were stationed outside his family home.

Henry himself saw his selection as just reward for his years of hard work, stating: “I only hope I’ll be worthy of the national selectors’ faith in me and not let South Africa down.”

Yet, even when he was with the national side, playing alongside the likes of Clive Rice and Brian McMillan against Kim Hughes and Co, he was not allowed to stay in the South African team hotel or eat at the same restaurants. He tried to go anyway, but “I was physically chucked out”.

Unable to represent the country of his birth, apart from occasional matches against touring rebel teams, Henry spent a lot of time playing in Scotland, where he is now a member of the Scottish Cricket Hall of Fame. As the Cricket Scotland website put it, “Henry was to become one of the most influential figures the game here has known”. He played 62 times for Scotland, including 14 as captain.

When he played his first Test match, in November of 1992, Henry’s statistical achievements were overshadowed by the symbolism of the occasion. As Arunabha Sengupta put it in a profile, Henry became “a symbol for what could be achieved in the new Rainbow country. He had secured his rightful place - as the pioneer in the journey of his people in South African cricket.”

By Jim Morrison