Cricket: Richards tempted to play in S Africa

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AS South Africa's cricketers prepared to make their historic return to Lord's tomorrow for the start of the first Test, two developments yesterday bore testimony both to their country's optimistic future and its troubled past.

While Viv Richards, the former West Indies captain and a fierce opponent of apartheid, was reported to be signing a contract to play in South Africa with Western Province, the MCC revealed that Basil D'Oliveira, whose banning from the Republic in 1968 set off the sporting boycott, had not replied to an invitation to attend the tourists' first Test at the home of cricket for 29 years.

In a statement issued through his British agent, the 42-year-old Richards was said to be 'delighted to play out his career in South Africa'. But while sources were saying that Richards would sign a six-month contract - estimated at pounds 100,000 - on Friday, doubts were also being cast in some quarters yesterday with word that negotiations were far from finalised.

Richards declined to join a pre-season tour of the Republic with Glamorgan last year, saying he would not even consider a trip until South Africa elected a black president. With the election this year of Nelson Mandela, though, Richards's criteria have been met.

Ali Bacher, the director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, believes that Richards' decision would be the final vindication of the changes in South African cricket. 'It means total acceptance,' he said. 'His presence in our country will be enormously beneficial to the development of the game.'

The MCC will host around 130 guests on each of the first four days of the Test, having drawn up a list of former players, politicians and leaders of industry. In D'Oliveira's case, though, the club have so far had no response. But, as an honorary member, he can enter Lord's without an invitation.

The 62-year-old former all- rounder said recently in one of his rare interviews on the subject of South Africa: 'People say I should forgive and forget. Well, that's fine. I can forgive but don't ask me to forget because I can't. I've had no contact with South Africa. They haven't asked me or invited me to the Test so I have no great desire to watch them. They are just another touring side as far as I'm concerned.'

Roger Knight, the MCC secretary, said: 'We've had no reply to the invitation we sent out more than a month ago. I hope he will be here but it has to be his decision. Maybe he doesn't want to be reminded of what happened in the past. This is not a political match. It's a big sporting occasion and I hope as many past cricketers as possible will be here.'

Politicians who will attend include Peter Hain, the Labour MP who was a leading anti- apartheid protesters in the 70s. He will be present as an official guest of the South Africans and said: 'We were bitter enemies then but things have changed and I'm delighted to accept this invitation.'

Meanwhile, it was announced that Ian Botham, David Gower and Derek Randall will join D'Oliveira among others as honorary MCC cricket members.

BRIAN LARA yesterday signed a sponsorship deal believed to be worth pounds 500,000 with Mercury Asset Management, a leading investment company. Warwickshire's West Indian batsman already has sponsorship and media contracts worth a total of around pounds 500,000. Having hit a patch of indifferent form recently, Lara admitted yesterday that he is exhausted. 'I have never played this amount of cricket before, and it is telling at the moment,' he said.

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