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By Gulu Ezekiel
South African captain Clive Rice said 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 South Africa were back in international cricket after 21 years following the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. 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 South Africa ban non-whites from representing national sporting sides, they also 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 1960’s.
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 strapping mostly white men rather than little green ones. But their greeting of “take me to your leader” on landing was loud and clear and Dalmiya was their man.
The other pivotal figure in their 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 which the home side won 2-1.
As a schoolboy, heavily influenced by the ‘white’ cricket media, I too felt the loss of some of cricket’s greatest players due to the ban was a tragedy. It was only later that I realized the real tragedy was the entire non-white population of South Africa being brutalized as second and third-class 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 imaginations as we had never seen them in action either in the flesh or on TV. The printed word and still photos 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.
This early fascination with South African cricketers was as I grew older transformed into reading everything I could about the struggle against apartheid. In the pre-watertight security days it was so much easier to approach cricketers and once I established contact with Dr. Bacher and some of the players at a pre-match function in the Capital, I was welcomed into their fold.
At the end of the match, the team bus heading from hotel to airport was packed but Dr. Bacher allowed me on if I would sit 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 the players 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 and some magnificent performances too. But nothing can match the thrill of that first path-breaking visit.