Over 50-years of apartheid may have for all practical purposes ended the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, but it was less than obvious that the reversing of sporting isolation would follow immediately. It was even less obvious that cricket would lead the way for the symbolic removal of shackles and pretty nigh unbelievable that the first sporting team to play South Africa would be India.
Be that as it may, it was to India that a stunned but excited South African cricket team led by 42-year old all-rounder Clive Rice (who had made his first class debut in 1969 but never played at the international level) boarded a beat up chartered unmarked Boeing 707 on the 7th of November 1991. Calcutta and the appropriately named Eden Gardens awaited them. How this happened is worth revisiting, for the intrigue was the stuff movies are made of.
Ali Bacher and Jagmohan Dalmiya pull off the impossible
Cricket in South Africa was divided along racial lines during the apartheid years, with two boards, the South African Cricket Union (SACU) which Ali Bacher was a part of, and the multi-racial South African Cricket Board (SACB). With the help of the African National Congress (ANC), the two joined hands in June 1991 to form the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA).
A month earlier Bacher had travelled to London to push the ICC for re-admitting South Africa but had made no breakthrough with West Indies, Pakistan and India firmly against white South Africa and its policies. India particularly had a long historical connection with South Africa but an equally long-standing history of disagreements on racism with the regime. In 1974, for the first (and till date only) time, India had reached the finals of Tennis’ Davis Cup and in a decision that stunned the sporting fraternity, conceded the tie rather than play South Africa.
Bacher was thus taken aback when David Richards, CEO of the Australian Cricket Board advised him to contact Jagmohan Dalmiya, the secretary of the BCCI for support. Richards’ suggestion was outrageous and logical at the same time. After all, if India, the most vocal opponent of the regime agreed, the rest would likely follow.
Bacher and Dalmiya hit it off right away. The crucial support, however, had to come from Madhavrao Scindia, the BCCI President. In July at the ICC meeting, Dalmiya persuaded LM Singhvi India’s High Commissioner to place a call to Scindia. The purpose was to explain how it made sense for India which had been at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement to lead the way in helping a future multi-racial South Africa emerge from the darkness of apartheid.
Dalmiya was a master strategist. While he could easily call his boss for support, using the High Commissioner gave it the diplomatic push which was essential for this plan to succeed. Maharaja Madhavrao Jivajirao Scindia was not only the President of the BCCI but also enjoyed the unique position of being a senior cabinet minister of the newly formed Congress Government at the centre, and if a diplomatic decision could be reversed, he was the one man who could facilitate it.
Within 24-hours Scindia had taken special permission from the Government of India and wired it back to Singhvi. As Richards had predicted, when India voted in favour of re-admittance of South Africa at the ICC, the rest of the members followed. A generation of cricketers had missed their chance, but South Africa could finally showcase their incredible talent pool again to the cricketing world.
But where and when would the prodigal son return to cricket?
Given India’s contribution to the cause, an India tour was the obvious answer, and the stars appeared to be aligned in no uncertain manner that second half of 1991. Pakistan’s tour to India had been cancelled by the Indian government and the BCCI was on the lookout for an alternative. An ODI series with South Africa was proposed. An overwhelmed Bacher, for whom things were happening too fast, was summoned to meet Jyoti Basu, the chief minister of West Bengal. Basu walked in shook hands and told Bacher, “I want you to play cricket in Calcutta next week.”
In one week Clive Rice and his team of predominantly white players were on the chartered flight to Calcutta to play a series of 3 ODI with the first scheduled for the 10th of November. History was about to be made at the Garden of Eden.
A Special Welcome
The South Africans had long been used to protesting crowds, so they could be forgiven for their nervousness when they saw thousands of people gathered at Calcutta’s Dum Dum airport on arrival. The crowd which had been waiting for hours was however gathered to welcome the South Africans to their city and the 15-mile journey to the Grand Hotel took a few hours with rose petals showered on the players. Smiles replaced the nervousness. The next day they met Mother Teresa, an experience that was to stay with the team for the rest of their lives.
Then, on the 10th of November 1991, 21-years after the last team to emerge from the southern tip of Africa had played a legitimate match, Clive Rice and his men walked on to the lush green outfield of Eden Gardens to claim their rightful place among major cricketing nations. Fittingly, it would also be the first official cricket match that South Africa had ever played against a non-white team.
A Thriller at the Garden
Not surprisingly, South Africa was a team of debutants. Ten of the eleven players to turn out for South Africa that day including captain Clive Rice, were playing their first international cricket match. The list included some names that would quickly become familiar to cricket lovers across the world – Peter Kirsten, Andrew Hudson, Brian McMillan, Dave Richardson and Alan Donald. Only Kepler Wessels, having played for Australia in the past, had experience of the big stage.
However, not even Wessels had ever walked into a cricketing arena where far more than the 90,000 ticket holders that should have been present, greeted the teams with a level of noise that an overflowing Brazilian football stadium would be hard-pressed to match. History was about to be made, and no one in Calcutta wanted to miss it.
Mohammad Azharuddin won the toss and elected to field.
On the third ball of the day, a late outswinger from Kapil Dev drew first blood as Andrew Hudson edged one to Kiran More. A few overs later, 38-year old Jimmy Cook could not keep Srinath’s angled delivery out of his pads, and South Africa was 28 for 2. A responsible innings of 50 from Kepler Wessels and a partnership with Adrian Kuiper who scored 43 helped take South Africa to 177 for 8 from a weather-affected 47 over innings. Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar were magnificent in their spells taking 2 wickets apiece and keeping the South African scoring rate under check. Sachin Tendulkar, in an early exhibition of his penchant to break partnerships for which he would come to be well known in the years to come, got rid of danger man Kepler Wessels.
The Indians could be forgiven for going into the break pleased with their performance and optimistic about their prospects, but it was only because neither they nor the world outside had yet seen a young bowling sensation called Allan Donald.
Neil Manthrop was to later write in Donald’s Cricinfo profile with the added benefit of hindsight: “If the credit for South Africa’s success in the modern era could be given to one player, that cricketer would be Allan Donald. A classical action and top-drawer pace would have won him a place in any side in his prime, and for much of his career he was the only world-class performer in the South African team, spearing the ball in, shaping it away and always making things happen.” The Indians did not have the benefit of hindsight, nor had they been provided with the time and technology to watch young Donald in action before they went in to face him that pleasant November afternoon in Calcutta.
Ravi Shastri and Navjot Sidhu opening the innings were all at sea against the pace and movement of Allan Donald. Shastri departed in the first over edging Donald behind the stumps, and Manjrekar who replaced him didn’t fare much better watching his stumps go cartwheeling. The Indians, who had been watching Dave Richardson stand back a third of the way to the boundary with some perplexity, soon found out the reason. At 20 for 3 India were in serious trouble and Allan Donald was just getting started.
It was left to young Sachin Tendulkar to provide a master class to his teammates in facing lethal fast bowling and he scored 62 in 73 balls before Donald managed to dismiss him. Praveen Amre chipped in with a sensible 55 and with the lower order guided India to the target with six overs to spare. Allan Donald’s 5 for 29 in his 8.4 overs had provided just a first glimpse of the brilliant career ahead of him.
South Africa had lost the match but won forever the hearts of the people of Calcutta who would hold a permanent soft spot ever after for anything Protean. Donald would just be the first of many South African heroes that the city would embrace as their own. In the decades to come, the names of Lance Klusener, Gary Kirsten and Jacques Kallis among others, would be added to that list.
South Africa wins their first match but India takes the series
The second ODI at Gwalior was more one-sided as India won by 38 runs to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series. The final game was played at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium, and a 109 from Ravi Shastri and 105 from Sanjay Manjrekar enabled India to reach 287 for 5. Despite the heroics of these two, the South Africans overtook those runs quite easily thanks to a 90 from Kepler Wessels, with Peter Kirsten and Kuiper remaining unbeaten with scores of 86 and 63 respectively. South Africa had lost the series, but earned their first ODI victory.
Clive Rice was later, to sum up, the significance of the moment when he led his team out at the Eden Gardens that 10 of November: “I know how Neil Armstrong felt when he stood on the moon.”
The Proteas had landed. This time they intended to stay.