Proteas’ first visit to India: A dramatic beginning

Ali Bacher recalls the dramatic beginning of India-S. Africa cricket ties in 1991 as the Indian team play their first Test from Sunday, Dec 26 in Centurion. Tour comprises of three Tests & three ODIs

Proteas’ first visit to India: A dramatic beginning

Qaiser Mohammad Ali

Former South African Test player Ali Bacher and the first managing director of the United Cricket Board (UCB) of South Africa, a unified board of the whites and blacks, recalls with astonishment the first visit to India by Proteas.

Speaking from South Africa, he narrates how fast the developments were in 1991.

“We flew back to Johannesburg on Sunday (from a goodwill visit to India), we had a UCB Board meeting at the airport and on Thursday we were off to India. Unbelievable, unbelievable,” gushes Bacher while talking to National Herald from South Africa.

“When we arrived in Calcutta [for the first ODI] there were an estimated 100,000 people lining the streets, from the airport to our hotel, to welcome the South African team. The game took place on Sunday [November 10] and there were an estimated 95,000 people inside the ground and an estimated 25,000 people outside the ground,” recalled Bacher, who played 12 Tests between 1965 and 1970. In Calcutta, the team met Mother Teresa and top politicians.

It was not a mere bilateral cricket series; it was a political event of huge significance that provided legitimacy to a non-racial South Africa. To propose South Africa’s re-entry into the ICC as a full, Testplaying member, the BCCI had taken special permission from the Indian government. The BCCI president at the time was Madhavrao Scindia, who was also an influential minister in the government, so that helped.

As Bacher says, the UCB chose India to play the first series after readmission to show its gratitude towards the country that had once severed all ties with South Africa due to its apartheid policy. Times changed, and political relations were established between the two countries. The tour to India was cleared in a flash, thanks to the backing from both governments.

“We, senior [cricket] officials Krish Mackerdhuj, Percy Sonn, Geoff Dakin and myself flew to Mumbai on a goodwill tour of India; we had never been there. We couldn’t play [official] cricket unless we were back in the ICC. And when we got to Mumbai the headlines in the newspaper were that Pakistan were due to tour India in a week’s time but they cancelled that trip,” said Bacher.

Around 300 people, comprising the Clive Rice-led team, their past and present cricket officials, commentators, and fans were part of the South African entourage that came on a whistle stop tour. The large contingent included non-playing team members Cronje and Derek Crookes, representing the whites, and black players Hussein Manack and Faiek Davids.

Manack and Davids never played international cricket. Although the four went unnoticed, they soaked in the experience of watching large crowds throng the grounds. And, of course, getting up and close with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, and captain Mohammed Azharuddin.

“The reception was unbelievable. It was my first exposure to India, a country my grandparents came from, the people, the energy, the hospitality. It was surreal,” Manack tells National Herald from South Africa. “Visiting Mother Teresa in Calcutta was a highlight and of course seeing the famous marble masterpiece, the Taj Mahal, a ‘teardrop on the cheek of time’ was breath-taking. The palace in Gwalior was also an experience I remember. I did enjoy browsing around the markets and shopping districts in Delhi.” In New Delhi for the day-night ODI, Cronje purchased a Rs.3,000 tiger-striped jacket from Connaught Place

Among the South African entourage was grand old Mrs Ambler Smith. “When I joined the South African Cricket Union in 1986 she was my PA. She was then in her 70s or early 80s. She worked for me for close to 10 years. She was great. Her English was brilliant. In those early days, she helped enormously with my important letters,” informed Bacher. “She was a bundle of energy and died at the age of 102.”

Manack’s high point was watching 17-year-old Tendulkar bat. “He made it look so easy. He looked like he was stroking the ball around in a club match and handled the pressure so well. I found that quite amazing.”

Hansie Cronje’s first visit to India however went almost completely unnoticed as he was among the four development players (two whites and two blacks) who were part of the extended squad. Cronje, like all his teammates, watched with amazement huge crowds turn up at Eden Gardens, Calcutta, to watch the first of the hurriedly arranged three-match ODI series.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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Published: 28 Dec 2021, 4:46 PM