Ali Bacher April 14, 2004

'I'm not going to retire'

Ali Bacher talks about his new book ..

Ali Bacher has a fear of heights ... but his roots gave him enough support to help him rise to heights only a few can dream of. In India to promote his new biography, Ali: The Life of Ali Bacher, he spoke to Wisden Cricinfo:

Ali Bacher: 'I loved this trip down memory lane' © Getty Images

When did you decide to write the book?
I remember back in the '80s a couple of journalists came to me asking about putting pen to paper, and I did get very excited for 24 hours, and then that was it. When Steve Tshwete, a very close friend, died tragically two years ago, my attitude changed - I felt I had a responsibility to record many of the behind-the-scenes happenings that took place in the early '90s. Things that he did, that Nelson Mandela did, that Thabo Mbeki did - to record them in writing because it was part of our history, and these events led to unification in South African cricket, and our return to international cricket. So I made a final decision after the 2003 World Cup to return to writing. And I loved it, this trip down memory lane.

What were the challenges in bringing out the book?
It was important to record it as it happened, and I believe we have done that. We haven't attacked anybody's personality; we have recorded exactly what's happened. When you assume a top position in the administration of sport you're not going to satisfy everybody, there are going to be differences of opinions, sometimes conflicts, sometimes controversies. And Rodney Hartman interviewed 80 people, and a few of them had some tough things to say about me. And he will tell you that I didn't veto any of those views. Everything is there in the book, so it's a balanced publication.

Was there any special statement you were making through the book?
I can say that what comes across is far bigger than cricket - it's about South Africa. South Africa is very much a unique country: it had a tragic past and now there is a miracle with the political transformation, which has been unique with no bloodshed. So more than cricket, the book is about South Africa - about its past, where it is now, and the challenges of the future.

Has your family been helpful in producing the book?
Yes, my wife and three kids are passionate about cricket, so they have lived through everything. I gave the final draft to my family to read and they were very constructive about certain parts. They said, "It didn't happen like this: you're favouring this person or you should be favouring that person. We believe it has been written as it happened." Their inputs were really outstanding. For example, Lynn, my younger daughter, who is an architect, phoned up and said, "Dad, there are 14 points I don't agree with you." And she was right on many of these points. So we tweaked it a little. Ann, my elder daughter, who is a lawyer, had very strong views on the Makhaya Ntini rape case and the Hansie Cronje issue. All the mental and emotional trauma that I experienced during those periods, she felt, had not been brought out in the original draft.

You came from a background which had a strong sense of community and deep religious convictions. The same holds true for many of the present South African team too. How do these qualities improve a player?
The top South African sportspersons have a responsibility to go out to the disadvantaged communities and support and motivate them and help in the best way possible, because as I have said they have been fortunate as there could have been a civil revolution in our country, there could have been bloodshed. Now our top sportsmen and women are able to compete at the international level, and they have a responsibility to go to the underprivileged, motivate and coach the children and inspire them.

How much does the family's support help a player (or, in your case, an administrator)?
Family is very, very important. A player needs strong support from family and friends if he is to succeed. I was fortunate as a kid, as I was aspiring to become an international cricketer, and I had many disappointments like any other player but my family played its role. You know, you come home at night, you are despondent and it is not easy to handle the disappointments. And during that time the family support is very important. And I think it is one of the problems with the emerging black cricketers in the country because many of them come from an environment where they don't have a strong family unit; many times a young cricketer has been brought up by his grandmother. I think that affects their cricket.

How does South African cricket help those people to fight the odds?
The cricket environment will help. It's important for the cricket authorities to understand their problems and there is a need for moral support, and sometimes support them with resources to give confidence to young cricketers when they are faltering and allow them to become top cricketers.

'The South African team is going through a period of transition after the retirement of some very good players' © Getty Images

Which were the biggest challenges you faced as an administrator?
The two toughest challenges I faced were the 1990 [Mike] Gatting tour and the Hansie Cronje affair in 2000. Post-Gatting tour, I lost my confidence. I remember that for about two months I would leave work at lunchtime, I would go home. I would pull the plug out, and take no calls - never done that in my life before. But three people had confidence in me - that notwithstanding the Gatting tour my intentions were honourable and I was passionate about the development programme and taking cricket to the black children of our country. The three of them were key members of the sports department in the African National Congress: Steve Tshwete, a gentleman called Mluleki George, the president of the National Sports Congress [NSC], and the NSC secretary-general Mthobi Tyamzashe - all three of them are black. We met clandestinely about three months after the Gatting tour, and they restored my confidence by motivating me to carry on driving cricket as best I could in the country, particularly in the black townships.

And what about the Cronje business?
We - the United Cricket Board of South Africa - took a viewpoint to internationalise the problem. When it became public knowledge that he was involved, it would have been crazy and naive to believe that he was the only one involved, so we decided not to remain silent and acted in the best interests of the game. Due to that I came under huge pressure in the subcontinent, but we did it because we had to protect the long-term interests of the game. The game was in disarray and there was a big question-mark over its future. This - match-fixing - was the biggest crisis the game had seen after Bodyline and the Packer revolution. I came under a lot of criticism, but I was under oath during the King Commission's enquiry and obliged to be honest and to convey exactly the type of information I had received from reliable sources. I believe I was vindicated: 18 months before the 2003 World Cup started Lord Paul Condon, the ICC's anti-corruption unit chief, wanted to see me in South Africa. I was nervous. It's recorded in the book. He came to my house and said, "I just want you to know that we have concluded our investigations worldwide into this problem and we believe that what you said at the King Commission was the truth." It was very disturbing for me, but good came out of it.

Eighteen months before the 2003 World Cup, Paul Condon wanted to see me. I was nervous. He told me what I had said at the King's Commission was the truth. It was very disturbing but good came out of it.

Do you believe things are under control as far as match-fixing goes?
During the World Cup Lord Condon told me that it was under control, and was suppressed, but we must not take our eye off the ball.

What makes a good administrator?
It helps if you had played the game at the highest level. That doesn't mean to say that if you are a non-cricketer you can't be a top cricket administrator. Take Malcolm Speed and Ehsan Mani - two shining examples who are very capable, world-class administrators, but they never played Test cricket. Generally speaking, worldwide, there aren't enough former Test players at board level. The best board would be one where you've got a balance between youth and experience - you also have accountants, you have lawyers, you have marketing people, but you also have some former Test players to give that balance. That's the ideal board. I just came back from the West Indies, where Wes Hall made the point that in the ICC top brass there have been only four people who have played Test cricket: himself, the late Colin Cowdrey, Clyde Walcott and myself. That's not good.

Can you talk about your fears - your fear of flying, for a start?
I can't handle heights. I have a tremendous fear of heights. Otherwise I am a very positive person.

During the early part of your playing career you were introverted and inarticulate. How did you gain confidence?
It's a good point. I couldn't make a speech with confidence in my early twenties. I remember when I was captain of Transvaal at the age of 21, and you had to make speeches - and I used to go to my wife's parents for help. Her father was a lawyer and a cricket administrator, and his wife, whose English was impeccable, used to help with the speeches. I used to say to them, "This is what I want to say." And they used to write out my speech, which I swotted like a history essay, and then at the team dinner I used to regurgitate the speech. So that's how I started off. I suppose with experience, and having to handle the media, I have developed confidence, and today I can speak pretty freely with confidence and off the cuff. It has obviously taken a long time. And now I look at Graeme Smith, 22 or 23, and he hasn't got his parents writing speeches for him! His speeches are natural and he speaks with confidence. He is quite remarkable.

Talking about Smith, you gave Don Bradman's book The Art of Captaincy to him, and also to Cronje. Why did you do that?
Because I had learnt so much from reading that book right from an early age. I learnt so much from reading cricket books. Sadly South African cricketers today don't read many books. That's a problem. To me the game is about the past, the culture, the great players of yesteryear - they make the game.

Bacher is extremely impressed with Graeme Smith and expects him to build a very strong South African team in the next few years © Getty Images

Does Graeme have anything in common with Hansie?
Both are natural leaders. A good leader can't be manufactured - you are born with it or you are not. Hansie showed at an early age that he was a natural leader. Smith didn't show that. When he was made captain at 22, some former South African cricketers heavily criticised the selectors. Nobody said, "Hey, you made a good choice." But the selectors were proved right. Before he went to England last year he came to me for an hour: jacket, tie ... I was very impressed with him. He spoke about integrity, pride in playing for the country, and his passion for the game. And that's coming through very strongly now. The team is going through transition after the loss of Cronje and the retirements of Allan Donald, Jonty Rhodes, Daryll Cullinan and now Gary Kirsten. So that's five world stars. But Graeme will build a very good team around him in the next few years. By 2007, the next World Cup, we should be a force to reckon with if players give a hundred percent.

Do you agree with the new franchise system introduced in South Africa's domestic game?
South African cricket, had there not been a World Cup, would have been in serious financial trouble. So the franchise system is there to ensure financial viability for the game. Previously each of the 11 provinces had 15 fulltime professionals, so the monthly salary bill was astronomical. Also they [the UCB] believe that the new system will be more competitive. They have taken a tough decision, and so we'll have to wait and see. Personally I feel there was possibly another way to handle the problem, but I don't want go into detail because it will become public and it will be headlines back in South Africa.

Finally, what new challenges you are taking up?
Look, I am 61. I feel young and energetic. I'm not going to retire, and if I can make a little contribution to my country I will do it. At the moment I am raising funds for my alma mater, the University of Witwatersrand, from where I graduated as a doctor. There are 24,000 students, 65% are black, and they are short on resources, short on funds, and I am quite willing to help them. As for cricket, I have had my share as a professional cricket administrator for 22 years, and the game has been very good to me. And whether down the years I play any other further role in South African cricket or world cricket, only time will tell. But one thing I won't do: I won't lobby, I won't make calls, I won't be proactive in securing a future role for myself in cricket administration.