To Owen Williams, apartheid meant more than the humiliation of being ushered in the back of a bus … a separate queue in a post office … a ‘coloured group area’ … or having to play the game he loved and excelled at on inferior fields and matting wickets.
It tore at him every minute of every day of his life – for it affected him in the most basic way possible: it split his family, elevating one section to a life of privilege, while dooming the other to a second-class existence.
Williams’ nightmare began shortly after his 12th birthday, when the functionaries of South Africa’s system of social engineering classified his mother, a brother, and a sister white; Williams and another brother and sister were declared coloured.
‘I don’t know if you understand what this means,’ he told the UK-based Sun newspaper in 1971.
‘It means I cannot visit my mother after dark.
‘She lives in a white area – and so, if I’m seen calling on her, it starts the neighbours talking, saying she must be coloured.
‘To save her, I stay away.
‘It also means that I can’t, for instance, meet my [white] brother in the city for a drink.’
And yet, in the midst of this personal anguish, he still found time to shine at cricket.
Williams is considered by many who had the privilege of seeing him play to have been one of the best left-arm spinners to come out of South Africa.
His superb record as a provincial cricketer in South Africa and in the Lancashire League bears testimony to that.
Sadly, when he was in the peak of his career in the 1960s, at a time when there was a dearth of top-class spinners in white South African competitions, apartheid ruled him out of test cricket.
Like most of his peers, Williams learnt the game by watching others and reading as much as he could.
‘I was a sports fanatic who spent most of my time collecting newspapers cuttings of the Springbok rugby and cricket teams. And when I started playing I modelled by style on that of “Tufty” Mann, a well-known Springbok spinner of the 1940s,’ he said.
Competitive (but informal) cricket for the young Williams started with daily street games in Warwick Street, Claremont.
There, in the fiercely contested matches, the potential of the young players was acknowledged by some of the top judges of the day.
‘Jack Newman, a respected local coach said he was impressed after having watch us play,’ said Williams.
‘And another spectator, the Springbok, Owen Wynne, said on one occasion: “You boys have great potential – but not in South Africa.”
Even as a youngster, Williams’ philosophy was: ‘In order to be successful, practise, practise and practise again.’
It certainly worked for him. His bowling improved in leaps and bounds and, consequently, his rise to the top came quickly.
In Board games, he bowled the great Basil D’Oliveira six times in eight games, before D’Oliveira’s departure to England in 1960.
In the days of ethnically divided unions, Williams made his debut for the Western Province Coloured side in 1953.
Five years and two tournaments later he had gained selection to the South African Coloured side.
‘I regard the 1958 team, which included greats such as D’Oliveira, Laam Raziet, Basil Witten, Sydney Solomons and Coetie Neethling as the best I’ve played in,’ he said.
Under the leadership of D’Oliveira, the SA Coloured team easily won the tournament that was played in Cape Town.
Williams’ 12 wickets came at a cost of just 14.80 per wicket – good enough to win him selection to the SA side that toured Kenya later that year.
Williams’ outstanding performance on that tour was his 9/59 against the Konganis, a white Kenyan side that had beaten the MCC that year.
Unfortunately, for him, however, injury prevented him from playing a major part in the test series against the Kenyan Asians.
With the advent of non-racial cricket within the SA Cricket Board, Williams became one of the top wicket takers in the country – not enough to earn him selection to the still apartheid-supporting South African test team, but for a stint in Lancashire League cricket with a tiny club called Radcliffe.
He ended his stint with the club with a haul of 143 wickets at a cost of 7.94 runs per wicket.
Although he was offered a trial with the county side, Warwickshire, he turned down the opportunity, deciding to return to his job as a job in a cabinet-making factory.
In 1971, the SA Cricket Union president, Jack Cheetham, invited him and Dik Abed to join a Springbok team on tour to Australia.
Both players turned down the invitation.
‘I refused to go as a glorified baggage master,’ Williams said later.
Ironically, later the same year he moved to Australia as an emigrant.
‘I had a taste of freedom while playing in England,’ he said.
Moreover, my daughter, Glynis, was very young – and I didn’t want her experiencing the same sort of humiliation that I had suffered as a result of apartheid.’
- From More Than a Game – the History of the Western Province Cricket Board 1959-1991 by Mogamad Allie