Rebel Richard Austin: No redemption in sight

Author : Sougat Chakravartty

Richard Austin – once a cricketer, now a wreck

“How did it come to this? “

Thus spoke Théoden, king of Rohan, in J.R.R.Tolkien’s legendarium The Lord of the Rings.

And with good reason too – because for some of the survivors of the ill-fated rebel West Indies squad that toured apartheid-era South Africa in the summer of 1983, the question simply breaks down their defences, causing all the bottled-up emotions to gush forth like raging torrents.

There is no redemption for them, no last hurrah, no gaggle of adoring fans even among the old-timers flanking them as they move from one place to another. Only one of that party found eternal peace – in a different world.

All because of one moment of defiance for one simple reason - a steady income. For in those days, cricket rarely saw the obscene amount of moolah that is liberally pumped into the game and of course, into the coffers of today’s stars.

Three of that 18-member side are now pale shadows of their former selves. David Murray, son of the legendary Sir Everton Weekes, and one of the finest wicket-keepers ever, has struggled with drug issues, and is now reduced to peddling them just to survive. Herbert Chang, a notable exponent of the willow, wanders the streets of Jamaica’s towns in a perpetual trance, and is rumoured to be dying.

And then there is Richard Austin, Kingston’s most talented all-round cricketer who played only two Test matches and a single ODI for the national squad.

Looking at him now – head tonsured, eyes bloodshot and rheumy, disheveled and high on cocaine – one would be forgiven for assuming that he is one of the deadbeats that infest the violent ghetto area of Jonestown. There is no sign of the once-invincible sportsman (he represented Jamaica in football, and was a talented table-tennis player by some accounts) who once pulled off a sensational catch to remove the legendary Graham Yallop of Australia in a game at the Kensington Oval.

It isn’t every day that you get to meet a player who could bowl at good pace and spin the ball just as well. It also isn’t a coincidence that he happened to form an extraordinary combination with Franklyn Stephenson – the greatest cricketer to have never played for the national team – at the height of his powers.

And it is decidedly unfair on the man because he, unfortunately, happened to arrive at a time when the Calypso kings dominated world cricket ruthlessly. A side that boasted of players such as Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, and the fearsome pace battery which ravaged other international teams was difficult to break into; such was the mastery they exerted on the game.

Austin signed up for Kerry Packer’s circus – World Series Cricket – after the first two Test matches against Australia in the 1977-78 season. The West Indies cricket board, incensed, dropped him for the third Test along with wicket-keeper Deryck Murray and opener Desmond Haynes; Lloyd and the rest of the WSC contractees in the side staged a walk-out, forcing the board to play a side that could, in the most polite of terms, only be described as a second-string team.

The good thing was that Richard’s form remained unaffected, and he went on to top the domestic season’s batting averages.

Then came the beginning of the long, dark tunnel; only this time, it seemed interminable.

He was only ever on the fringes during his time at WSC, and once Packer reached a settlement with the Australian cricket authorities, was cruelly ignored by his own nation’s board.

He was struggling to rake in the cash, but more importantly, he was missing out on international exposure, unable to savour that intoxicating feeling of pitting himself against the world’s best at the time. Desperation was starting to seep in now, and the feeling of disenchantment was beginning to reach alarming proportions.

So when Austin was made an offer to sign up for the rebel tour of South Africa in 1982-83, he accepted it promptly.

Richard Austin and Alvin Greenidge of the rebel West Indies XI play a one-day international against South Africa in Cape Town, during their tour of South Africa, February 1983.

Richard Austin and Alvin Greenidge of the rebel West Indies XI play a one-day international against South Africa in Cape Town, during their tour of South Africa, February 1983.

He flew out to Johannesburg, alongside Lawrence Rowe, David Murray, and a host of other talented cricketers including the swashbuckling all-rounder Collis King, whose exploits in the 1979 World Cup final had overshadowed Richards’ classic hundred. They were greeted by loud cheers and applause from a crowd of about 100, in a nation which was condemned to sporting isolation due to its oppressive, pro-white politics.

On January 15, 1983, the first game of the most controversial series of all time began, under the shadow of Cape Town’s Devil’s Peak mountain, as the ragtag bunch from the Caribbean walked out on to the field. Austin does not recollect much of that day now, but he remembers the ecstasy that enveloped him and his teammates.

To the spectators, it was more than just a series – it was the breaking of barriers set around their nation. The Caribbean players felt the same way. And so, they went on with their game, perhaps unaware of the unbridled anger simmering back home.

As the tour ended, and the players departed for their respective locations, the brickbats began to fly thick and fast. Clive Lloyd and Michael Holding, whom Austin once played with, joined the growing throng of dissenters who, as proud descendants of African slaves, believed the eighteen had sold their souls to the devil.

They had defied their governments, the United Nations and the world-at-large, all for a silly game and the lure of riches.

The cricket board came down hard on the group – they were handed life bans, ending whatever slim hopes Austin, Murray, Chang and the rest had of turning out for the national side. Heroes in one continent, they were now outcasts in their own.

And Austin’s life fell apart.

He struggled to find employment outside of cricket, but no one wanted anything to do with him. The psychological pressure on him was devastating, and beset by the hopelessness of his circumstances, he crumbled.

Alcohol and drugs became his constant companions. He owned a car and a house, but the lure of the streets was too much to ignore, and he succumbed to its steamy, haze-filled seduction.

Slowly, Richard Austin was forgotten by all. People began calling him Danny Germs – a lowly, crazy street bum who often loitered around a patty store, begging for food and money to fuel his addiction. The man who could make the ball talk was reduced to a pitiful wreck in one fell swoop.

Very occasionally, and when he isn’t enmeshed in the snares of booze and crack, Austin has managed to clean himself up and get the odd coaching assignment here and there. But the thirty-year old burden of being labelled a traitor in all but name has become so great that he has relapsed into his never-ending downward spiral. Even though the Commonwealth heads lifted the bans in 1989, Austin couldn’t benefit.

His teammate on that fateful tour, Sylvester Clarke, escaped the lifelong vilification after passing away in December 1999. Fate, however, has not been that kind to Richard.

He is 59 now, but looks 80. Those bloodshot eyes still carry the pain and misery of the vitriol poured on him from all quarters. His captain on that tour, Rowe, rebuilt his life by moving to the United States; Richard returned to Jamaica and destroyed his life.

In his moments of sobriety, Austin has been known to make intelligent observations about the game. It suggests that he is not yet so far removed from the grip of reality, but in the land of Bob Marley, he is one of the unfortunate souls for whom there may be no redemption song.

The ones who were vocal about their disgruntlement with Austin’s decision – Lloyd and Holding – went on to have successful international careers both on and off the field. The only question I’d ask them is this: if Austin and the rest of the rebels sold out to the South Africans, and if trying to make money is not all in life, then why did you participate in Packer’s circus in the first place? Wasn’t money a factor in your decision then?

Lloyd’s squad of the eighties had a battery of pace bowlers. Was Austin not good enough to be counted as a reliable back-up option, even?

The answers won’t be forthcoming. Those guys have their own lives to lead. Richard has no semblance of anything that can be even remotely construed as a life.

And so, as the long night continues, the shadows creep in closer as Austin heads off to another drug-induced coma – the only real world he has known for three decades. Perhaps he is better off that way.

 

 

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