South Africa’s First Non-White Post Apartheid Player
Anybody under the age of 30 will probably struggle to understand the impact which Omar Henry had in international cricket.
He was a talented player, with both bat and ball, who excelled in domestic cricket, both in his native South Africa and during a lengthy period in Scotland. A fierce competitor on the pitch, charmingly loquacious off it.
Yet sadly, from Henry’s perspective, he reached his peak in the game at a time when the colour of his skin prevented him from being chosen for his homeland. Such was the pernicious influence of apartheid as South Africa was isolated from the rest of the sporting world.
As matters transpired, Henry – at the age of 40 – finally gained his opportunity on the international stage and played in three Tests and ODIs. Though past his best by that juncture, he remained a canny performer, who offered glimpses of the skill which explained why he took 434 first-class wickets at an average of 24.97.
His place in history is assured because he was the first non-white to play for South Africa after the collapse of apartheid, but his achievements add up to much more.
After retiring from the game, he advanced into commentary and coaching and eventually became South Africa’s chairman of selectors, prior to helping develop the next generation of Ntinis and Amlas at the grassroots.
This is a fellow who has witnessed almost everything on his peripatetic journey from Stellenbosch to Stenhousemuir.
So when CricIndex caught up with him this week, it wasn’t a surprise that, even at 64, Henry was still happy to chew the fact about cricket.
Q: Hello Omar, how is life for you these days.
A: “Life is very good at the moment. My health is good and I am a grandfather of two grandchildren – a grandson ( to my eldest daughter Shireen) and a granddaughter ( to my second-eldest daughter Reyhana).
“My son, Riyaad, is over in the UK playing cricket [with Rushton CC in Northamptonshire] and he has a year to finish his degree in teaching. He could be available to play for Scotland, depending on his performances over there.
“My wife is a marathon and a Comrades runner and she is now the athlete in my house, along with my children. The two daughters are still playing club hockey.
“I am sort of semi-retired. I completed an eight-year stint as convener of selectors for the Cobras Franchise Team in the Western Cape.
“I am currently coaching the Western Province Academy squad and assist with the Western Cape Academy Squad which serves as a feeder to the various Provincial Teams and the Cobras Franchise.
“ I also assist the community club in my home town Stellenbosch.”
Q: Do you still keep tabs on Scotland and what’s your view on the Associate countries?
A: “Yes, of course I stay in touch with cricket in Scotland. I met up with Bruce Dixon and his wife Margaret, Gordon Hollins and Joey Kennedy when they were in Cape Town recently.
“ And I also followed the games of Scotland during the T20 World Cup.
“I think that some of the Associate Countries have most definitely made progress. But I don’t think it is just more games that they need to get better.
“There are other issues that one has to consider, such as how to fit the Associates into the mainstream of cricket and the continued sustainability and development within all the countries.”
Q: How is cricket developing in South Africa? Any names we should look out for in the future?
A: “Cricket in the Western Cape has been very good in terms of supplying players to the national team. As a Franchise Team, the Cobras have enjoyed success in all formats of the game for the last 10 years.
“We do have some challenges in terms of transformation, development and excellence. Every Franchise in the country is facing the same challenges, because the game at the top has become more demanding on the players to succeed as a player and a team.
“Currently, the young players in the National Team are Kagiso Rabada, Quinton De Kock and Dane Piedt. Wayne Parnell from the Western Cape is another who has come through the ranks.”
Q: What are your hopes and concerns for cricket’s future?
A: “I hope that the ICC will, in future, control cricket in a more effective and efficient way and that all the countries will find a model to make the game accessible to more people.
“While the game globally needs numbers in terms of quantity, it also needs quality.
“My biggest concern is the match-fixing issue within cricket.”
And with that last sentence, Henry quietly lobbed another grenade into the air. He isn’t the only person to wonder whether T20 couldn’t become a cheats’ paradise, if that hasn’t already happened.
After all, it is the perfect environment in which to play daft shots, spill sitters and bowl ridiculous wides.
But Henry still loves the game. He made history 25 years ago. And his exploits with Scotland, such as helping them beat Lancashire in 1986 and Northants in 1989, are rightly celebrated.
Hopefully, we’ll hear more from him and Riyaad in the future.