The Unforgiven: Mercenaries or Missionaries? by Ashley Gray – Review

The Unforgiven Mercenaries or Missionaries by Ashley Gray book Review cover logo

By Karl Hornsey

There are two sporting teams from the early 1980s that still fascinate me to this very day. Exposure at the impressionable age of 8-10 years old means there’ll never be for me an international football team to rival that of the Brazilians at the 1982 World Cup, and likewise, the touring West Indies cricket side of 1984 will live with me forever.

That love of the Windies when they were in the middle of their remarkable dominance garnered an interest in anything to do with the players involved and the situation in the Caribbean at the time, and so it was with great interest that I picked up The Unforgiven by Australian journalist Ashley Gray. And it proved a wonderful learning experience and eye opener, even for someone such as myself, who thought he’d read everything there was to read around the subject.

The subjects of the book, as defined by the subtitle ‘Mercenaries or Missionaries?’, are the West Indian cricketers who made up two squads that toured South Africa in 1983, when the policy of Apartheid was still the norm, knowing they would be banned from playing for their country, in some cases for the rest of their careers.

Having read Fire in Babylon (and watched the wonderful documentary film of the same name), I was familiar with the opinions of some of the legends of the sport about those that chose to tour South Africa, and of course those feelings were strong ones, even so many years after the tours took place.

The Unforgiven Mercenaries or Missionaries by Ashley Gray book Review coverWhat I had never heard were the testimonies of those who toured, the reasons why and what happened to them upon their return. Gray deserves huge credit for tracking down so many of the players, many of whom were still reluctant to talk about such an emotional and defining period of their lives, and allowing them to have their say. Each player gets his own chapter and Gray has produced a book that should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in cricket as a whole, never mind just that from the Caribbean.

“Struggled to ever get over their decisions”

Somewhat ironically, it was the very success of the West Indies in the early 80s that drove several overlooked players to accept the temptation of the huge payday on offer from the South Africans, feeling either that they had little chance of breaking through into the Test team, or that their time had been and gone already.

Among these players are several who would have walked into every other Test team in the world, including the likes of Sylvester Clarke, Hartley Alleyne, Ezra Moseley and Franklyn Stevenson, who found their paths to glory blocked by one of the most iconic fast bowling line-ups in the history of the sport. Previously, these, and the rest of the tourists have been cast simply as mercenaries who effectively helped to give the Apartheid regime credence by touring, betraying their roots simply for cash.

The truth is far more nuanced, and Gray gets to the heart of that by speaking to the vast majority of the touring parties. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, as players struggled to ever get over their decisions or be accepted back into their homelands. Others have developed the mental strength to move on, or hail from islands that were more forgiving than others. Each story is different to the next and there’s even the odd failure to get a player to talk – notably the notoriously truculent Colin Croft – who tells Gray in no uncertain terms what he thinks of the author’s idea for a book.unforgiven

For each player who has turned his life around since the tour, there is another who has suffered tragic consequences, but each one deserved their story to finally be told, and for that, Gray’s efforts are hugely appreciated by this long-standing Windies fan.

‘The Unforgiven: Mercenaries or Missionaries?’ by Ashley Gray is published by Pitch Publishing, £19.99 hardback


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