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'It was a reception that you might have expected for Gandhi!'
The overwhelming emotion that consumed the players on the first official tour undertaken by a South African cricket team to India, in November 1991, was disbelief. And it remains their abiding memory twenty years later. The haste with which the tour was put together caught everybody by surprise. Barely a couple of months earlier, there were no more than half a dozen cricketers in South Africa with even an inkling that the country's pariah status was about to change - let alone that it might happen so suddenly and spectacularly. When the call came to the chosen few they were, to a man, unable to comprehend the enormity - physically, emotionally and historically - of the journey they were about to embark upon.
Much of the negotiation between the United Cricket Board's chief executive, Ali Bacher, and his counterparts on the Indian board had been firmly stamped "highly confidential" for fear that the rest of the world would rise up in arms at the prematurity of the return to full international contact. Not only were anti-apartheid activists around the globe likely to cry foul, with the country seemingly years away from democracy (three years as it transpired), but India's own freedom fighters and human-rights activists would surely be appalled at the prospect of South Africa bulldozing through two decades of protests and objections merely for "a game of cricket".
But Bacher convinced both sides that the liberation of Nelson Mandela had created a tangible enough environment of hope and reconciliation, and persuaded everyone that when the tour became a reality a wave of optimism would sweep all objections aside.
"I'm not sure how much notice we actually had, " recalls opening batsman Andrew Hudson twenty years later, "but it felt like no more than a few days. It was completely dreamlike. We simply couldn't imagine what sort of experience we were about to live. It was beyond anything we had seen or done before. "
But when the reality started to sink in, it became more and more like a journey into Neverland. You have to remember, India felt like the least likely place on the planet that we could visit. I had played club cricket in England and travelled a bit in Europe, but India! None of us could imagine what to expect. '
Hudson, who was 26 at the time, remembers the drama and excitement of their arrival clearly. Or rather, he remembers the dizzy and fuzzy emotions that awaited the squad with the exact same dizzy fuzziness that confronted them two decades ago.
"We were completely unprepared for the welcome we received. We had grown up as cricketing outcasts with all the controversy and negativity of the Rebel tours as our main focus on how South Africans were perceived in the international community. Yet there we were, arriving at the airport to a reception that you might have expected for Mahatma Gandhi! There were thousands of people cheering and waving to us all the way into the city. We were waving back but it was more out of shock than acknowledgement. "
Nobody had been expecting that sort of recognition, or any recognition for that matter;a welcome party numbering in the hundreds of thousands and a fivebus cavalcade led to the team hotel by some 200 motorcyclists was, as Clive Rice put it, "unreal".
"The crowd was ten-deep at many places, " says Hudson. "Clearly there was a mystique around our return to international cricket but we were completely unaware and unprepared for it. At times I thought we must have strayed onto a film set!"
The adventure, however, was only just beginning by the time the first officially non-racial (albeit entirely white) South African XI stepped onto the field at Eden Gardens on 10 November. The stadium was packed to the rafters. Though just how packed was hard to say. Official crowd figures have always been impossible to verify at the subcontinent's "home of cricket", given the haphazard seating arrangements and the colossal number of freebies and hangers-on at such a massive cricketing occasion in India. Jagmohan Dalmiya, then president of the Cricket Association of Bengal announced to the world that the official capacity of Eden Gardens was 90, 452 and, with a few peanut vendors and guests in his presidential suite thrown in, rounded the final crowd figure up to 90, 800, declaring it a world record for a day of cricket. It certainly sounded that way to Hudson out in the middle - the South Africans had never experienced such noise.
Sadly, it didn't last long for him;the fog that had delayed the start by half an hour may have cleared by the time he and Jimmy Cook walked out to open South Africa's first officially sanctioned innings since 1970, but the emotions racing through his head and the adrenaline in his body never did. "I edged the third ball I received from Kapil Dev to the wicketkeeper and that was that. But I'll never forget walking out to bat in front of that many people for the rest of my life. But if I thought it was a long walk out there, it was even longer on the way back!"
If the Indians thought their path to a target of just 178 would be a routine stroll, they were in for a shock with the introduction of the 25-year-old Allan Donald to the international stage: he literally took their breath away. With his daunting run-up and classic action, "White Lightning" was the fastest bowler most of the Indian top order had ever faced, and opener Ravi Shastri admitted some years later that he had had difficulty catching his breath.
In the second match of the whirlwind tour, two days later in Gwalior . . . much of the build-up had been overshadowed by alleged accusations by the tourists that India's bowlers had "tampered" with the ball at Eden Gardens. In retrospect, it illustrated the hilarious naivety of Rice's squad and their management.
In almost every way the "magic" of the return from isolation had overshadowed South Africa's first official victory (the third One-dayer in New Delhi) as a nonracial, unified team. The benefits to future generations of that victory would only be appreciated much later, but the legacy of that first tour will always be the grace and humility with which Rice and his players accepted the hospitality of their hosts.
Under Ali Bacher's watchful eye, South Africa had been accepted back into the international fold. It would be a long time before they would go by the name of the South African national flower, but this was the beginning of the Proteas. South Africa was back.
(www. 20years20matches. co. za)
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