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Meeting Mr Mandela

Adelaide offered a minute's silence for Nelson Mandela AFP

Before the Indian team left for their historic tour of South Africa in 1992-93, the board president, Madhavrao Scindia, gave me, the team manager, only one instruction: the first thing the team should do is call on Nelson Mandela.

This directive put that tour in perspective. From a cricketing standpoint the tour was a journey into the unknown. Practically nothing was known about South African cricket, about its grounds, conditions, pitches or players. It was, however, apparent that there was a political context to the trip, and the Indian team's visit was a significant policy statement. In those days, South Africa was out of bounds for Indians. Our passports used to be stamped "not valid for South Africa and Israel". The Indian government did not recognise the FW de Klerk regime because of its apartheid policies, and India had no official presence there in the form of an embassy or diplomatic personnel.

The early 1990s, though, had been a period of profound change. The South African cricket board had "united" and was headed by African National Congress (ANC) leader Krish Mackerdhuj and driven by Ali Bacher, whose vision was to use cricket as an instrument of reconciliation, inclusion and peace. India was the first cricket team invited to end South Africa's years of international sporting isolation.

When we reached Durban, the Indian team was given a rousing welcome. The players rode from the airport to the hotel in open-top cars and attended a civic reception. When I met Bacher, I promptly put our request to him about the team meeting Mandela.

An appointment was soon granted and a visibly excited team set out to meet the great man one afternoon in Johannesburg. But we had one major concern: what would be an appropriate gift to present to him? The team wondered if it would be proper to give him a BCCI tie, a team shirt, an Indian handicraft, or a silk scarf. After much debate, the "safest" option was chosen: a cricket bat signed by the team.

As the team manager, I had my own worries. On occasions such as this on tours, it is the manager's responsibility to say a few words on behalf of the BCCI and the squad. At any other time it would have been a routine affair; you utter the usual polite words and the matter is done. But this was no ordinary occasion. It was my responsibility to say the right things to the world's most iconic leader.

I worked hard on my speech, making sure it included Gandhi, world peace and close ties between India and South Africa, memorised it and rehearsed it several times.

Then it was time. The Indian cricket contingent was led into Mandela's office after passing through several layers of security. We stood around in a hall waiting for him to arrive. He walked in, a half-smile on his face, serene and gracious, radiating warmth and goodness, charm and humility. There was no hurry in his handshakes, no sign of a world leader with the weight of the world on his shoulders. We were speechless with awe, thrilled at being in his presence.

Handshakes done and introductions made, it was time to say my bit. Everyone gathered in a semi-circle. I took a deep breath, said a silent prayer and recited my practised piece adequately, without stuttering or stammering. Once it ended, there was an awkward silence. We waited for Mandela to speak but it seemed he was waiting for something. A little later an aide rushed in with a piece of paper containing points for his speech. He referred to them and spoke eloquently, his words simple and encouraging. He accepted the signed bat and said he appreciated the thoughtful gesture. Later, Krish told me the bat was displayed prominently on the mantelpiece in his office.

During the Wanderers Test, we were delighted when, one afternoon, Mandela turned up to watch the match. Cricket and rugby had been seen as the white man's sports in apartheid South Africa. To have the Indians over as the first cricket team was a big step, and Mandela's presence at the Wanderers wouldn't have gone unnoticed by any South African. I sat with him during his visit, answering questions about the state of the game and the players on the field. Being in his company was a privilege.

Mandela thought sport had the power to change the world, and perhaps, in a tiny way, the Indian team had made a difference when it made that tour. Mandela had a gift of making things around you look better brighter and better. Part of it could be attributed to the awe we felt in his presence and for what he stood for, but much of it was because of the truth in his very long and eventful life.

One of my most treasured possessions is a photograph with him, signed: "To Emrit, Nelson Mandela."