South African captain Clive Rice once said that he felt like the first man on the moon after playing in front of 100,000 delirious spectators at Kolkata's Eden Gardens. It was November 10, 1991 and after 21 years, South Africa were back in international cricket following Nelson Mandela's release from prison. The ban had been imposed in 1970 due to the white minority government's abhorrent apartheid policy.
If Rice felt like Neil Armstrong, Indian cricket fans felt like aliens had landed in their midst. For not only did apartheid-era South Africa ban non-whites from representing national sporting sides, they only competed against the 'white' cricket nations of England, Australia and New Zealand. It was a cozy situation but one that had become increasingly untenable by the late 1960s. Kolkata was the obvious venue for the first match, being the home-turf of BCCI secretary and strongman Jagmohan Dalmiya who played a pivotal role in South Africa's return to the fold. Cricket's equivalent of aliens were (mostly) strapping white men rather than little green ones. But the greeting of “take me to your leader” on landing was loud and clear and Dalmiya was their man.
The other pivotal figure in the return was the last man to captain South Africa in a Test match in 1970, Dr Aron ('Ali') Bacher, Dalmiya's counterpart and someone who had worked tirelessly to keep cricket alive during the years of isolation. Some of his methods were frowned upon at the time, most glaringly luring 'rebel' sides from England, Australia, West Indies and Sri Lanka to compete in unofficial matches in South Africa with generous funding coming from the apartheid government. But all was forgiven as the South Africans were feted and welcomed with open arms in Kolkata, Gwalior and New Delhi for three One-Day Internationals that the home side won 2-1.
As a schoolboy, heavily influenced by the 'white' cricket media, I also felt that the loss of some of cricket's greatest players due to the ban was a tragedy. It was only later that I realised the real tragedy was the entire non-white population of South Africa being brutalised as inferior citizens in their own land. For so many of my generation, the feats of legendary players like Bacher, Graeme and Peter Pollock, Eddie Barlow and Mike Procter could only be played out in our imagination as we had never seen them in action. The printed word and photographs were all we had. These players were part of the mighty 1970 team that whitewashed Australia 4-0 on their own soil in the last series before the ban. For us in India, South African cricket was like forbidden fruit.
As I grew older, this early fascination led me to read everything I could about the struggle against apartheid. In days when watertight security was not the norm, it was easier to approach cricketers. Once I established contact with Bacher and some of the players at a pre-match function in the Capital, I was welcomed into their fold.
The day after the match, the team bus heading from the hotel to airport was packed but Bacher allowed me on if I sat on the floor. One of my schoolboy heroes, the dashing all-rounder Mike Procter was the coach of the team and I spent an hour sitting by his feet as the rest of the players huddled round me discussing cricket and politics on what was a memorable journey for me.
As I accompanied the team to their chartered plane on the tarmac and shook hands with them one by one, my mind was in a whirl, wondering what the future held for South African and world cricket. Two decades later, the results have been mixed, with controversies galore but magnificent performances as well. But nothing matches the thrill of that first path-breaking visit.
Gulu Ezekiel is a New Delhi-based sports journalist and author. The view expressed by the author are personal.