Back to where it all began
When South Africa arrived in India with a squad in which seven players had no experience of international cricket, there was concern about how such an inexperienced side might react in pressure-cooker situations, particularly in the cauldron of humanity that the Eden Gardens can turn into on a good day. Think then of the emotions of the first South African team to tour India, in November 1991, who arrived with only one player who knew what international cricket was like - Kepler Wessels - and played their first game in front of a 90,000 strong crowd at the Eden Gardens.
Trevor Chesterfield, the veteran journalist, who came on that tour for the Pretoria News, recalls how overwhelming the whole experience was, not just for the players but for the entire South African contingent. "The tour was organised almost at the last minute," he said. "I remember we landed in India on a Friday, and it had been decided we were coming only five days before that, on the Sunday. There were still no airlines operating between South Africa and India, so we arrived on a chartered plane. It was the first South African plane ever to land in India - can you believe it?
"We were, of course, indebted to the Indian board for welcoming us so warmly and arranging for our visit at such short notice. But it was when we were taken to our hotel from the airport that we first began to feel the enormity of the occasion. On our journey to the hotel we found the roads were lined by thousands of people welcoming us to India, carrying all kinds of signs and messages of goodwill for us. We were delighted to find that our invitation to India seemed to have been issued not just by the board, but by the people themselves."
For Colin Bryden, who came on that tour for South Africa's Sunday Times, it was the first chance to see India's famed batsmen. "On Saturday, the day before the game, I walked around the ground watching the Indian players at nets. Before this Azharuddin, Tendulkar ... these had been just names for me. Now I saw with my own eyes the distinct way in which they played, and in particular how skillful they were with their leg-side strokes."
The game began at 9:00am on a smoggy Calcutta morning, but not before an unusual ceremony. The South African players did a lap of the ground to thank the crowd for their warm welcome. Then play started. Those who saw it remember that, although low-scoring, it was certainly absorbing. These are the things most people seem to remember: Andrew Hudson falling in the first over to Kapil Dev for a duck; Wessels emerging at No.3 and making a gritty half-century; and some late fireworks from Adrian Kuiper, another player who had lost his best years in the game. And there is one thing that nobody has forgotten: the hostility and searing pace of Allan Donald, who took three wickets in his first four overs, and 5 for 29 in all.
"I don't think the Indians had ever played anybody as quick as Donald before," says Chesterfield. "But Tendulkar played beautifully for a half-century, and later Pravin Amre made a very good fifty as well, and India eventually won. But the atmosphere was absolutely incredible. You had to be there and feel it to know what it was like. I remember Hudson telling me later that he was overwhelmed by the occasion and by the atmosphere. What passion cricket aroused in this country! He said he gained a new sense of what cricket was all about and what it meant."
There were effectively two generations of South African cricketers playing that game. Some, like Clive Rice and Jimmy Cook, were touching 40 and past their best, and their selection was a small token of appreciation for all the years of service they had put in without ever being able to play at the highest level. In fact, as Bryden points out, Rice, then a promising youngster, was picked for the tour of Australia in 1971-72, the tour that never happened. Now, nearly two decades later, he was making his debut. And the future of South African cricket was also seen in the form of Donald, who was to become one of the all-time greats.
And now Donald's years in the game are over, and a whole new generation of South African cricketers are acquitting themselves honorably on their first tour of India. As they carry on the baton of South African cricket they, too, must often have been reminded that, in a sense, in all began here in 1991.
Chandrahas Choudhury is a staff writer for Wisden Asia Cricket