TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
“WHAT? You’re a white guy?!” For a man more used to asking rather than answering questions, Tony Cozier accepted that rude enquiry with uncommon grace.
He did not reply. He did not have to. He simply smiled his warm smile from behind his even warmer eyes as his clumsy questioner – me – stood there, gaping, gawking and gobsmacked.
It was April 1992. SA were touring West Indies for the first time, and what a time it was.
Taxi drivers wanted to know, “That Winnie Mandela – is she a good woman?” Those were the days of questions being asked ever more urgently about the violent death of teenage activist Stompie Seipei.
Ali Bacher, then the managing director of the United Cricket Board, endured a gruelling press conference in which West Indian journalists asked, in many different ways, what the hell he and his all-white squad – bar Omar Henry – were doing there when black people in SA did not have the vote.
During the Barbados test, SA’s first after 22 years of isolation, a travelling South African supporter dared to wave the flag of apartheid – which was still, technically, the law of our faraway land – in the stands.
Also during that match, Brian Lara survived standing on his stumps because the square leg umpire, David Archer of Barbados, said he was unsighted. With that, a South African in the pressbox exclaimed loudly, “Hierdie kaffers vat kanse (These kaffirs are taking chances).” He was one of those reporters who professed never to mix politics and sport.
For a South African who did not know television before SA were thrown out of international cricket, which consequently did not feature much on our screens when TV arrived, Tony Cozier was a photoless byline in newspapers and magazines and a voice on radio. And there was nothing white, to these ears at least, about that voice’s accent.
So to see him in all his unmistakable whiteness, blessed with a warm smile and even warmer eyes, was politics on legs. Here, a step away from those champions of black excellence, the West Indies cricket team, stood a jolly white giant – who died in Barbados on Wednesday, aged 75.
Until illness took many kilogrammes from him in his last years, Cozier was indeed a big man. Good thing, too, because he needed that heft to look like what he was: someone who had covered cricket since 1958 and had been there and written that in all sorts of publications and spoken into more microphones than anyone could imagine.
He watched the Windies rise to greatness. He reported on their rein. He dissected their decline. And he did so in unimpeachable, everyman’s English. Who needs hyperbole when Viv Richards and Malcolm Marshall write your stories for you with their exploits out in the middle?
On that 1992 tour we were in a party of dozens that arrived at our hotel in the wee hours as our flight from Jamaica had been delayed because the plane turned back after almost plunging into the Caribbean itself.
The front desk was deserted until Cozier’s son, statistician Craig, called out, “Cozier is here!”
Instantly, a squadron of staff was scrambled from somewhere and the Coziers were almost carried to their rooms.
Best of all, Cozier wore his greatness lightly. He had been a cricket writer for 34 years when I, seven months into my career, happened onto his doorstep and asked him a stupid question. Neither then, nor in the 24 years that I knew him, did he seem anything less than in love with life. Indeed, whenever he saw a stroke he liked he would issue a jolting yell of, “Shot boy!”, and to hell with pressbox etiquette.
Winston Anthony Lloyd Cozier is here. Always will be.