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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Zaheer on January 11, 2011, 12:20 GMT

    Pakistan can have no claim on Amla. His family,like mine,came to South Africa from gujarat,which is still part of India,and did not see much migration at the time of partition.

  • Cricinfouser on January 11, 2011, 6:57 GMT

    Hashim Amla is an Indian ??????? Amla's parents/grandparents migrated to SA before sub-continent partition in 1947? So, in today's terms, he could be either of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Indian descent. Since he is a Muslim and not a Bengali speaking one, the most appropriate background for him is Pakistani... not that i care so much, but it's laughable how Indians are trying to own him as soon as he has started performing.

  • Vipin on January 10, 2011, 21:02 GMT

    I think Team India has shown a great character by bouncing back after a humiliating first test defeat at Centurion. Number of times they have proved that they are true champions and deserve to be on Number 1 position.

  • Dummy4 on January 10, 2011, 17:16 GMT

    I'm really glad to look at Indian batsman playing for SA, it's great unfortunate for India to loose such a player in international cricket. anyway hats-off for Amla for his open talk

  • Dummy4 on January 10, 2011, 12:18 GMT

    India should also play in Fiji where Indians or POI were in Majority few years ago (now only about 40%) to celebrate arrival of Indians in fiji. Can play either Cricket or Soccer. We prefer soccer; we can beat India in Soccer, India will flog us in Cricket

  • Neriyan on January 10, 2011, 11:06 GMT

    Hi All, as a South African Indian let me please comment on the scenario of South African Indians supporting India instead of SA. Let me first say that I support SA first, and then India due to my heritage. However for the older generation, it is more a case of "we support anyone that plays against SA", especially if that team is a traditionally non-white team like WI, India, Pak, SL etc. However they only have this mindset for cricket and rugby, which are seen as "white sports". These same people will support SA in soccer, which is seen as a "black sport". This is because many of them still carry the scars of apartheid. However the younger generation like myself were not really exposed to the humiliation of apartheid, so it is only natural for us to support out home country. Although our country has been free for 17 years, change still takes time. Eventually this oddity will change.

  • sunny on January 10, 2011, 10:56 GMT

    Ali Imran Mirza:Whats eating you mate.Hashim Amla has roots in india so he is referred to as that.I dont concur with you contention that at the start of his career he was not referred to as that.I remember him being referred to as being indian origin South African since the very beginning.He would very well like to be known as a South African i am sure of that too however he cannot deny that his roots are in india.........just like usman khawaja cannot deny that his roots are in pakistan.dont worry he wont be referred to as an indian playing for australia.n just because hashim amla is a muslim does not automatically make him a pakistani.

  • Ashish on January 10, 2011, 10:13 GMT

    Earlier the Indian descendants were unable to go back even if they wanted to, so their supporting India back then was justified. But now they have been there for generations, are free people and have an option to come back unless they consider themselves very much the part of SA. And if they do, they should surely support SA and not India. @Ali Imran Mirza- I always suspected if Amla's performance against India had to do something with his Indian origin. Please do something to declare him of Pakistani origin. May be that would make him less formidable against us. lol. BTW almost all Pakistanis are of Indian origin. Remember any time before 1947 ???

  • Vivek on January 10, 2011, 9:18 GMT

    I agree with Trotter3, yes these Indians have gelled well with the local people in the respective countries and still keeping the light alighted. However, I would also like them to support their countries be it the West Indies, the UK, or South Africa…we know how it feels when the Kashmiris support the Pakistanis in any Indo-Pak match…so please try to follow my humble advise…

  • Upamanyu on January 10, 2011, 8:01 GMT

    sorry i meant south africa first

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