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'The most special date of our lives'
In the mid-1980 s, if you had told any South African cricket player that our national team would be playing against India at the Eden Gardens in 1991, you would have been dismissed as a lunatic. I'm not exaggerating one bit. That was our reality during the long years of sporting isolation.
So it makes me a bit dizzy thinking about the fact that it's been 20 years since South Africa's return to international cricket.
In a way, these things happen in cycles...our period away from the global arena, because of the country's apartheid policy, lasted two decades too. For those of us who have been linked with the game over the past three or four decades - either as player or administrator - November 10, 1991 will remain the most special date of our lives.
A lot of sweat, toil and self-belief went into making that dream a reality. The wheels, of course, were set in motion much before a cavalcade of 100, 000 people thronged the streets to welcome us in Calcutta. Much before Clive Rice's team took the field at Eden Gardens.
The return was fundamentally the initiative of Nelson Mandela, and was facilitated primarily by his release from Robben Island prison - after 27 long years in jail - in February 1990. In June of that year, with global perception on South Africa having softened following steps to deconstruct the apartheid policy, we were allowed back into the International Cricket Council.
We were, strangely, just a member. It was bizarre because there was absolutely no discussion on us playing any matches against anyone. That subject was still taboo.
A couple of months later, I remember taking Clive Lloyd to visit Mandela at ANC headquarters in Johannesburg. Lloyd was in South Africa not as a member of any organisation, but purely as a batting legend;as one of the finest captains from the West Indies. He had been going around townships to inspire more people of colour and more blacks to take up the game, since cricket had, unfortunately, primarily been a white pastime. I remember him going around saying, "Whether you are white or black, you now have an opportunity to take up the game. This game is not about colour. It is about skills, and it is fun. "
It so happened that the media got wind of our visit to ANC headquarters, and there was a large crowd gathered. One of the members of the media asked Mandela, "Mr Mandela, what about South Africa playing in the 1992 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand?" Mandela replied, "Yes, they should play. " That news was carried by the wires to newspapers across the world.
There was no looking back.
Tyron Fernandes of the Sri Lanka Cricket Board called me the next day assuring his support. In October at Sharjah, the ICC's Colin Cowdrey formally allowed us to play in the 1992 World Cup. Everyone agreed we should play, including India. Only the West Indies abstained.
Even before that absolutely surreal development could sink in, it was time to organise a hasty but historic three-ODI tour to India. Eden Gardens was chosen as the venue where we would be playing our first-ever One-day International game. That sent everyone into a tizzy, including the players, administrators and selectors.
It was, of course, the idea of Jagmohan Dalmiya, who was then the head of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB).
A delegation consisting of a few of us went to India in late October of that year, and Madhavrao Scindia and Mr Dalmiya prevailed upon us to replace Pakistan, who had suddenly opted out of touring India. Next, I confabulated with Steve Tshewete, who was ANC sports minister, and he said, "The Congress party in India has been of enormous help to us in our fight against apartheid. If they say they wish you to tour India, you go". It was settled, then.
The following Thursday, the first-ever chartered plane from South Africa landed in Calcutta. It was insane, there were 100, 000 people to welcome us. It was momentous.
The importance of the occasion hit us like a pile driver. Although the coming to power of the African National Congress was still three years away, Mandela's release had made it possible to convince everyone we could play cricket again. It was like being given back the ability to breathe.
Thinking about it now, I think the most extraordinary thing in the last 20 years has been South Africa's ability to seamlessly fit into the top rung of international teams, something no one really expected. Many had thought their cricket would be outdated, and it would take years to beat the top teams. It hasn't turned out that way. I would attribute that to the pain of isolation: When you are isolated, you work that much harder, you innovate that much more, you treasure your performance that much more. The next step is to ensure full integration, to make more effort to encourage blacks and people of colour to embrace cricket, but the team should always be selected on merit. It is heartwarming that our international batting star Hashim Amla, is Muslim. The journey has just begun.
(As head of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, Dr Ali Bacher played a leading role in the country's reintegration into the international cricket scene. Dr Bacher spoke to Partha Bhaduri)
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