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India in South Africa 2013-14

The spirit of Lenasia

Many South Africans battled apartheid by continuing to play cricket during the isolation years, refusing to join teams that were based on policies of segregation

Sidharth Monga

December 16, 2013

Comments: 4 | Text size: A | A

A stadium in Lenasia
The cricket stadium in Lenasia, where sport often became a vehicle of protest © Sidharth Monga
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Players/Officials: Rohan Kanhai | Basil D'Oliveira | Tiffie Barnes | |
Series/Tournaments: India tour of South Africa
Teams: South Africa
Grounds: Lenasia Stadium

About 35 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg, a metal board with bullet holes welcomes you to Lenasia. Back during the days of apartheid, Indians - mainly from Fordsburg - were forced to settle here. The oppressors didn't want the oppressed to mingle, and thus possibly unite. Blacks, coloureds and Indians lived separately. The Indians were sent near the Lenz army base, and thus the name Lenasia.

This is where Mahatma Gandhi lived, on an unassuming farm far from all population. This is where the first real protest against racial segregation began, where the pass - a document you needed to get to the main town if you were not white - was first burnt. This is where sport became a vehicle of protest, an identity, a reason to live, a cause big enough to risk facing death for.

Sport, though, was not black and white in those days. You wanted to play the sport, but you wanted your country to be isolated from international competition. You made sacrifices to play, but you couldn't join a white team because you would then let the struggle down. You couldn't allow the establishment to make you the trophy coloured person in the team and parade you to the world. You were a sell-out if you did.

Was Solly Kathrada a sell-out? A light-skinned Muslim, Kathrada once tied to enrol for a karate class and was turned down. His Jewish boss enquired about his long face, and then asked him to take his last name, Joffe, because Kathrada had the skin tone to carry it off. Ebrahim Momla, a boxing champion, used to pose as a Lebanese man so he could enter competitions. Essop "Smiley" Moosa, the footballer, played in a whites team under the name Arthur Williams, a garb that didn't last for more than a game.

Cricket was more organised. There were times when Transvaal would be playing Western Province at the Wanderers, and on the same day the same two teams would be playing each other in a non-racial match in an open field in Lenasia, which had four grounds: Turfs 1, 2, 3 and 4. There is a fence around these turfs today, and the grass in the outfield is overgrown. Back in the day, the outfield would be gravel, stones, broken glass, and the pitch a coir mat. When Rohan Kanhai played for Transvaal, the whole of Lenasia would turn up with their baskets of food and thermoses of tea. Basil D'Oliveira was their hero: they were ready to spend any amount of money to be able to send him to play in England.

The Lenasia Stadium, situated in Rainbow Valley, was a better facility. Abdul Latief "Tiffie" Barnes scored the first century here. Kanhai scored two. Graeme Pollock's on-drives broke many a window. Haroon Lorgat, a young chartered accountant back then, began his cricket career here, having moved from Western Province. He was once part of a 400-run partnership. This is where Abbas "Papad" Dinath would go out to bat with poppadoms in his pocket, which he would eat during the innings. This is where Amien Variawa came after he left his sick bed, because he had to beat the white team in a rare match against them. His century helped Haque's XI beat John Waite's XI, which had four Springboks, including Ali Bacher.

This stadium too was taken away by the city council. Bang in the middle of the Indian settlement, this ground could now be used by white teams only. So one day, knowing full well they would get arrested, with money kept aside for bail, cricketers from two clubs - Pirates and Crescents - "invaded" the field. They didn't get arrested. It surprised them.


A plaque at the Tasmanians Cricket Club
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Aslam Khota, now a commentator, was a 21-year-old risking arrest that day. Despite being such an enthusiast and a provincial player in non-racial cricket, Khota first got to see Newlands when he began commentating. Listening to him talk about how big a moment it was to visit Newlands, you wonder how the current Indian team will react when told these stories.

Khota and other people of colour had a small segregated enclosure in most grounds - most banned them completely - to watch cricket from. They would go there and obviously support anyone but the Springboks. Their own cricket hardly got any coverage. Khota used to double up as a journalist. He remembers how he once had to struggle for a week to a get a piece published when Hussein Manack, his colleague in the commentary box now, possibly broke a record by taking ten wickets and scoring a hundred in a match in Scotland. He got his break in commentary after many a tape was "lost" after auditions.

There has been a case made for how the legends of the Dadabhay Trophy, more famously known as the Howa Bowl, didn't quite cut it in unified cricket. However, it was not so much about quality as it was about equality. It was about spirit in the face of oppression. Lenasia helped keep the protest alive, by continuing to play, by refusing to join teams based on policies of segregation.

Lenasia has its own challenges today. There's crime on the outskirts and metal boards with bullet holes in them. Inside, it's peaceful, although the population is still mostly those of Indian descent, which cannot be ideal. You listen to Khota and his friends, and story after story of struggle flows out. And not just from Lenasia or Indians or cricket. It's about sport, about life, about the struggle to live with dignity. You can listen to these all day. They must be preserved. Even though that struggle is over, kids must be told these tales in their mothers' laps. Lest freedom be taken for granted.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by   on (December 16, 2013, 23:41 GMT)

Top stuff. These are the stories which at once remind us that no sport is bigger than life itself, and yet, the power recreational sports wields, the spirit and soul it lends to mankind and their struggles.

Posted by golgo_85 on (December 16, 2013, 15:44 GMT)

A brilliant article - even the most ignoramous of us all would turn around and think if they would have taken some time to read this piece.

Posted by Beertjie on (December 16, 2013, 11:58 GMT)

This article, Sidharth, itself needs to be preserved on this site, lest its voice and substance be forgotten in the interests of political correctness. The dilemmas we faced as sports-mad players in negotiating the complexities of sport in an abnormal society deserve such exploration. But too often we hear the voices of the lost generations of talented white players deprived of opportunities.

Posted by   on (December 16, 2013, 5:19 GMT)

This is an amazing story brought out wonderfully by Sidharth. It brings about the struggle the people of dark skin went through in the old SAF and why the new non-racial regime is so much to admire about.

Like some of the players like Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, many a cricketer from the Asian and African origin would have been lost due to the regime. It shudders to think about the life of people back then. It brings in more admiration to Dr. Ali Bacher, Nelson Mandela who fought hard to bring SAF back into international sport.

These are stories that have to be passed to the next generation of not just South Africans because they help you keep on your toes and admire what the administrators have done in the past and currently.

As much as the quota system is derided, I think it is history like these which makes you want to provide as much opportunity to other colored people.

It is spirit of people like these who make Sport what it is - Larger than life

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