Of South Africa and 30 years of Eden regained

  • Ali Bacher recounts South Africa’s first match at Eden Gardens after readmission, is positive about future despite damning SJN report.
Dr Ali Bacher (L) and Percy Sonn from South Africa in the Long Room at Lords Cricket Ground in London. (PA Images via Getty Images) PREMIUM
Dr Ali Bacher (L) and Percy Sonn from South Africa in the Long Room at Lords Cricket Ground in London. (PA Images via Getty Images)
Published on Dec 20, 2021 10:20 PM IST
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By, Kolkata

“It was unthinkable for a South African plane in November 1991 to be taking a South African cricket team, some of its sponsors and supporters to fly over India and touch base in Calcutta. It was unheard of.”

On the other end of the phone is Dr Aron ‘Ali’ Bacher speaking from Johannesburg, gushing over that ODI in Kolkata on November 12, 1991. It was a tightly fought game where Allan Donald announced himself with 5/29 before Sachin Tendulkar (62) and Pravin Amre (55) guided India to a three-wicket win in a low-scoring thriller.

It’s not the match per se that makes that date so special. It was the culmination of smart cricket politicking with a touch of diplomacy, making that India-South Africa series one of the most brilliant coups in the history of team sport. It was ironic too. India was the first country to de-recognise South Africa when the ruling National Party rolled out Apartheid in 1948. But in 1991, India’s cricket board proposed their re-entry to cricket and ensured South Africa’s return to international sports the same year.

A pioneering cricket administrator, Bacher had just led South Africa to a 4-0 home series win against Australia in 1970 when international tours were stopped. He joined the South African Cricket Union (SACU) that administered white players and first-class cricket. The South African Cricket Board (SACB) represented coloured and black cricket. As SACU administrator, Bacher arranged quite a few rebel tours to South Africa by teams from England, West Indies, Australia and Sri Lanka. But never India or Pakistan. So, when South Africa were readmitted after their boards had united in June 1991, Bacher started testing the waters in the subcontinent for probable tours.

“We first went to Sri Lanka, then to Pakistan and then flew back to Mumbai. When we landed in Mumbai the big headline was ‘Pakistan withdraws from tour of India’.” Pakistan were supposed to tour India the next week in October for a five-match ODI series.

Jagmohan Dalmiya, instrumental in proposing South Africa’s re-entry at the International Cricket Council (ICC) as BCCI secretary, sensed an opportunity. “He told us: ‘Look chaps. I want you to approach India in a week’s time. South Africa’s first game will be in Calcutta.’ Dalmiya even took us to meet West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu who wanted us to replace Pakistan.”

But Bacher wanted to check with the other stakeholders. There was some hesitancy, especially from Percy Sonn, who later became the first African to become ICC president. “So I called Steve Tshwete, one of the leading ANC (African National Congress) members, and told him about the invitation from India,” says Bacher. “He spoke to Percy for around 20 minutes. After putting down the phone, Percy said “We are going to India”. To this day I don’t know what Steve said to Percy.”

Interestingly, when the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA) met on Sunday, the black members were in favour of going ahead with the tour but not the white representation. The majority prevailed. By this time though, Madhavrao Scindia—BCCI president and the man responsible for getting the diplomatic go-ahead to support South Africa’s readmission to international cricket—was faced with a different problem.

“Monday morning, Scindia phoned me,” says Bacher. “He said there is great happiness in India but we could have a problem if you send an all-white team. So I phoned our convenor of selectors. I said ‘I want you to select four young cricketers who one day might play for South Africa—two white, two black. They won’t play but they will be part of fielding practices and nets.” One of them was Hansie Cronje.

Between Monday and Thursday, a 43-year-old Clive Rice was put in charge of a predominantly white South African team, National Panasonic came on board as sponsors with a 250,000 rand cheque and the logistics were sorted out before South Africa’s departure. “It’s so difficult to describe the excitement from outside,” says Bacher of the moment South Africa landed in Calcutta. “We drove from the airport to the hotel and anticipated there were about 100,000 people to welcome South Africa. The bus would stop at places, I would say a few words to the crowd, and then Clive would say a few words.”

South Africa trained in front of curious eyes on Friday and Saturday before Mohammad Azharuddin and Rice went out for the toss on Sunday morning. Standing in the middle of the ground, Rice had famously said: “I know how Neil Armstrong felt when he stood on the moon.”

Bacher remembers the exact moment he saw Andrew Hudson and Jimmy Cook going out to bat. “One look at Andrew and I said to myself “The first ball on his wickets and he is out”. You could see the stage fright. I was right! Kapil got him out in the first over.” That match also set off a revolution in cricket broadcasting in the subcontinent. On reaching Calcutta, Bacher came to know Doordarshan never used to pay BCCI any broadcasting fee to televise cricket in India. “I said to Dalmiya: “This is history in the making. I am going to give you a quarter million rand to arrange that broadcast to South Africa”. His eyes popped out. He couldn’t believe it. That moment he realised how Indian cricket was undersold for decades.”

Thirty years since that match, India have reaffirmed their commitment to South Africa by going ahead with a tour despite warnings of a more infectious variant of Covid-19. The tour couldn’t have come at a more testing time too, days after a Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) commission determined that Cricket South Africa (CSA) had indulged in racial discrimination, the most prominent among them being former captain and current director Graeme Smith, current head coach Mark Boucher and former captain AB de Villiers.

On an administrative level, no one has dealt with racism in cricket as much as Bacher. “The players, umpires and administrators were divided (on racial lines). Whites had the best of everything while the blacks had the worst of it.” When he arranged those rebel tours in the ‘80s, Bacher says he was unaware how his countrymen felt. “I believed Apartheid would be there for the rest of my life and therefore cricket would be isolated. Obviously I was wrong.”

For the first time in 1989—when Mike Gatting led a rebel tour—peaceful demonstrations were allowed. “In the early 80s, if there were demonstrations outside the ground, the police would lock them up in jail. So those games that were supposedly peaceful, I now know why,” says Bacher.

1989 was an eye-opener. “It really hit me hard. Had I known the great antagonism in the majority of South Africans about those tours, I think I would have thought twice about those tours. All I would say is I’m very confident about recent developments in South Africa. I just hope we don’t end up with the polarisation of South African cricket, of white against black, and black against white.”

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    Somshuvra Laha is a sports journalist with over 11 years' experience writing on cricket, football and other sports. He has covered the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup, the 2016 ICC World Twenty20, cricket tours of South Africa, West Indies and Bangladesh and the 2010 Commonwealth Games for Hindustan Times.

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