As a young cricket fan in the 1970s, I used to amuse myself by creating a fantasy South African team to face the then-indestructible West Indies. In those days of the repugnant apartheid regime, most county sides in England had an outstanding South African. There was Mike Procter at Gloucestershire, Ken McEwan at Essex, Barry Richards at Hampshire, Clive Rice at Nottinghamshire, Vincent van der Bijl at Middlesex, Garth Le Roux at Sussex and Peter Kirsten at Derbyshire. Any Test side of the period would have been delighted to have such players to call on.
It is just possible that my fantasy South African side would have beaten the great West Indies team of that period, if not over an entire series then at least in an occasional Test or two. Politics, rightly, prevented such a match from ever taking place.
The sporting ban against South Africa was successful because it turned the weapons of the apartheid state against itself. The ruling white elite - so many of them sports fans - were made to feel inferior and shut out from respectable society. They were reminded that, to borrow the old mantra, there could be no normal sporting relations with an abnormal society.
Those such as Margaret Thatcher who saw the apartheid state as an important bulwark against the communist threat in southern Africa could never understand why South Africa was excluded from the family of sporting nations when the Soviet Union, Iran, China and many other despicable tyrannies were not. There were others who argued that sport and politics should never mix. That always struck me as a pathetic argument, because sport is saturated in political significance. Whether sport is seen as a vicarious expression of nationalism, as a form of proxy war, as a lifestyle statement, as a mechanism of coercion and control, as a kind of secular religion or simply as a form of entertainment, it can never be separated from politics. The two are inextricably linked.
Today many of those who once supported sporting links with apartheid South Africa are in favour of excluding Zimbabwe from the sporting world. It is erroneously argued that what is happening under Robert Mugabe is another form of apartheid, with the few remaining whites in Zimbabwe a persecuted and endangered minority. The forthcoming two-Test series between England and Zimbabwe should therefore not take place. Zimbabwe is a rogue state. There can be no normal relations with an abnormal society.
The truth about Zimbabwean cricket is that it is genuinely multiracial. Unlike the sporting teams of the old white South African elite, it is not supported by wealthy multinational corporations, but by funds raised from tours and from selling television rights. To read the report in the latest Wisden on cricket in Zimbabwe is to understand just how precarious the future of the game is in that unhappy country, and why this Test series must take place if cricket there is ever to spread beyond the urban centres.
The present Zimbabwean team, led by the rugged white farmer Heath Streak, has been weakened by retirements and exile. This is a shame because it is possible to construct a fantasy Zimbabwean team of present players who are not on this tour but who might well have formed a team to trouble England. These include Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, who protested so bravely against the Mugabe regime during the recent World Cup but who have since "retired"; the excellent Murray Goodwin, who now plays for Sussex and Western Australia; the all-rounder Neil Johnson, who lives in South Africa; and Graeme Hick, who remains perhaps the greatest unfulfilled talent of his generation. It is possible that if Hick had been patient and chosen to represent his native Zimbabwe rather than England, he may well have thrived on the hard, true pitches of Harare and Bulawayo, becoming in the process the player his natural talent demanded he should be. It is a tantalising thought precisely because, like those lost matches of my childhood between South Africa and the West Indies, we know it can never happen.