January 9, 2011

A salute to India in Durban

Indians have been in South Africa for 150 years now, and cricket has been one of their connections to the motherland

When Hashim Amla steps out to bat in the Twenty20 International between South Africa and India at the Moses Mabhida Stadium, he won't simply be walking out to any ordinary crease.

It will be to a wicket that has been laid at a venue that was crucial one of South Africa's greatest achievements in their short democratic history. Amla will be batting on a pitch at a stadium built for the football World Cup, a tournament South Africa could not have dreamed of hosting when men of just a generation before Amla were his age - men who would never have been able to play in a ground so magnificent, let alone be picked for the national cricket side. They are an almost forgotten community of cricketers who played a rich role in keeping the sport alive in the minority Indian community during the apartheid years.

Some of them will feel commemorated in this Twenty20 match, albeit in a small way, for the decades of deprivation they endured. The game has been turned into an event of tribute, and some of the homage paid is going to be to the Indian community, which is celebrating 150 years in South Africa.

A century and a half ago, the first indentured labourers arrived on a ship from India to work on sugarcane plantations in what was then Natal. The thousands of poverty-stricken people who made the journey across the Indian Ocean were getting a raw deal - they would work to pay back the costs of their travel to South Africa, and when they had done that they could either go back home or stay on and earn a measly wage. Effectively that meant almost all of them would never return to their homeland and had to build new lives in a new country. But their lives were not all about work and poverty.

"They were naughty and they played games," Ashwin Desai, a sociologist, tells ESPNcricinfo. The first of those sports was football.

"It was the game of the people, and for many it was all they knew," Krish Reddy, the well-known cricket historian, says. Even though it was amateur and played on derelict fields, where any excuse for a round object could be a ball, it was taken seriously. It was also the start of what came to be a tradition: of tying sport closely with the motherland. Many teams were named after something in India. "They were very nostalgic about their home and they wanted to feel close to it. So they called their teams names like Tigers of India," Reddy says.

It's these bonds with India that are still evident among the diaspora today. Many South Africans of Indian descent still nurture strong links to the religions, foods, dress and other elements of culture of India. To some that tie is so strong it even leads them to cheer for the Indian cricket team, although the community as a whole learnt and played the sport in South Africa.

Cricket began to catch on in South Africa in the late 1880s, about 30 years after the first Indians arrived in 1860. At that stage the policy of segregation was not formalised, but there was a distinct distance between people of different races, along economic lines as well as cultural and social. Indians took up the sport in Natal by the early 1900s, according to Reddy, and formed the Durban Indian Cricket Union in 1923.

That body relied solely on donations and membership fees and cricket was played on a largely social level. Indian cricket unions were forming all around the country and in 1941 the South African Cricket Union (SAICU) was born, an amalgamation of organisations in Natal, the Western Province, Eastern Province and Gauteng. They could only organise tournaments every two years, lasting for about a fortnight each, but in the 20 years the union existed, they managed to play nine events.

It's this sort of activity, Desai says, that illustrated Indians in South Africa wanted to build a life for themselves in their new country. "They laid down very deep roots, probably because they knew they weren't going back. Even though it was impossible to amalgamate (because of apartheid), they wanted to create a space for themselves to function in."

"I couldn't believe it when they allowed us to use Kingsmead. The seating was separate for spectators but they allowed our players onto the field that was used for whites only"
Cassim Docrat, Gauteng chief executive

In the later years of the SAICU's existence, all people of colour were uniting in the resistance movement against apartheid. Black Africans, Indians and coloureds formed one group standing up against minority rule. As divisions between them broke down politically, the same happened in sport. "They decided to abolish the ethnic character of their unions," Reddy explains. In 1959 the South African Cricket Board of Control (SACBOC) was formalised, under which all players of colour participated in the game.

SACBOC's most important tour was their 1958 (even though they were not yet formalised) and 1959 home and away series against Kenya. Basil d'Oliveria captained the team in "Test" matches, one of which was played at Kingsmead.

"I couldn't believe it when they allowed us to use Kingsmead," says Cassim Docrat, who was instrumental in SACBOC's formation and is now the chief executive of the Gauteng Cricket Board. "The seating was separate for spectators but they allowed our players onto the field that was used for whites only."

Just before democracy, SACBOC and the white-run South African Cricket Association joined to form the United Cricket Board and create a national, all-encompassing body. "Many of the SACBOC members weren't happy when we agreed to talks with the whites. They thought we were too lenient," Docrat says. "I don't regret it. We did the best we could to form a united board and pave the way for the future of all our cricketers."

The matches played under SACBOC, 223 in total, have recently been given first-class status. Reddy was tasked with sourcing all the scorecards and his work has seen close to 800 cricketers achieve first-class status. They include prolific 1970s batsmen Yacoob Omar and left-armer spinner Baboo Ebrahim. Of the 800 players, Reddy thinks at least a third were Indian.

The interest South African Indians have taken in cricket has not translated into major representation on the international stage, though. Only five Indians of South African descent have played at international level and only one is a regular. Amla is currently the poster boy for Indians in South African cricket, in the same way that Makhaya Ntini was the black African face for over a decade. It worries Docrat that there is not a steady stream of people of Indian descent staking a claim for a place in the South African team. "We are concerned about it. The important thing is that administrators at domestic level keep looking for talented players and helping them through the system."

Hearteningly, though, the number of Indians in the domestic set-up is growing and many feature regularly in their franchise line-ups. Like anything in the new South Africa, it will take time to even out the balance. One only needed to take a drive past Curries Fountain, a haven of non-white sport in the apartheid years in Durban two years ago. The field that was once used by the Indian cricket union was battered and bruised, almost everything in it broken. It has since undergone a revamp - a telling sign of how old wounds can be healed.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent