'We left knowing that we put South Africa on the map'
Before Omar Henry had the right to vote in his country, he represented it as an international cricketer.
In 1992, Henry made his ODI debut at the World Cup, the tournament in which South Africa reintroduced themselves to global sport as a determined, driven outfit. Apartheid, an official marginalisation of the country's black majority, was the reason South Africa had been isolated from the international community. The cricket World Cup became one of the routes through which they re-entered the fold.
Although South Africa had played in India the previous year, they had never participated in a major multi-nation tournament before heading down under. For an outfit that did not even expect to play the tournament, they exceeded everyone's expectations, including their own.
"At first we thought we weren't going to play in the World Cup at all, because even though we were back in the fold, the time frame was too tight. It would be too much of a rush to reorganise to include us," recalled Mike Procter, South Africa's coach at the time. "But then out of the blue, we were told we were going. It was like Father Christmas arrived ten times on the same day."
Mere months before the event, Procter had been director of cricket at Northamptonshire, and was slightly removed from the situation in South Africa. He admitted that neither he nor most of the players knew too much about the negotiations that eventually paved the way for South Africa's inclusion. "We thought they wanted the best sides there, and our past record proved we were one of those."
Beyond the boundary, the African National Congress, the party led by Nelson Mandela, and its sports head Steve Tshwete lobbied for South Africa to go to the World Cup. Despite the transition of the country into a democracy still pending, he also convinced the ICC to include South Africa in 1992.
The ICC agreed on the condition that the result of the referendum, which asked white South Africans whether they would support the end of apartheid, was yes. The problem was that the referendum would take place during the tournament, but Tshwete assured officials that South Africans would not vote no.
After those discussions, South Africa named 30 probables for the tournament. But the absence of three prominent players - Peter Kirsten, Clive Rice and Jimmy Cook - shocked everyone. "I was as staggered as the rest of the country," Procter said.
Procter was not as intimately involved in the selection process as a modern-day coach would be, but he was concerned by the trio's exclusion. "I communicated with Kepler [Wessels, South Africa's captain] quite regularly and we'd agreed that we needed to try and get them into the side. They were all hugely experienced and were definitely not past it."
Rice did not play for South Africa again. Cook, although left out, featured in the Friendship series against India later that year. But Kirsten had the most significant impact on South Africa's tournament. He was eventually part of the final squad and ended up as their highest run-scorer and third overall. "He was just fantastic, he gave the guys a lot of confidence," Procter said. "I thought we would do pretty well but we didn't actually know how good we were or how we would match up."
After their opening game, it became clearer. They beat the defending champions, Australia, by nine wickets in Sydney.
"Everyone always talks about Allan Donald's three wickets but I think the real unsung hero of that match was Richard Snell," Procter said. Snell conceded only 15 runs in his nine overs, after which Wessels' 81 not out and Kirsten's 49 not out guided their chase of 171.
"After that euphoria, we went to New Zealand and they just gave us a hiding," Procter said. 'We didn't have enough runs." A total of 190 for 7 proved indefensible, but South Africa learnt some lessons from the game, especially about modern tactics. Mark Greatbatch began New Zealand's chase aggressively and scored 68 off 60 balls, which left the South Africans aghast.
"These days that's nothing," Procter said, "but for us back then it was like a 20-over start to the game - almost like seeing what Chris Gayle or David Miller can do today." Procter said Martin Crowe's strategy of opening the bowling with a spinner, Dipak Patel, also surprised them.
They soon realised the value of spin on slower New Zealand surfaces and played the only front-line spinner in their squad, Henry, in the next match against Sri Lanka. Again, South Africa could not get past 200 and lost by three wickets. Henry took 1 for 31 and did not play another match in the tournament. In hindsight both Procter and Kirsten felt he should have been used more.
It did not matter in Christchurch, where South Africa beat West Indies in a contest that Procter said was "not just another cricket match". Questions about race and how South Africa's team of the 1970s and '80s would have matched up against West Indies' golden generation were raised. Beating West Indies convincingly put South Africa's World Cup back on track at the halfway stage of the tournament.
Pakistan were their next opponents. The match has a special significance for Procter because of the image it is most remembered for: Jonty Rhodes' head-first dive into the stumps to run out Inzamam-ul-Haq not only changed the game but made a Procter prediction come true.
"I knew Jonty from when he was a youngster in Pietermaritzburg and he'd come and stay at my house when he needed to be in Durban for cricket. I was always a fan of the way he played the game. I knew he was one of the best fielders around," Procter said. "When the World Cup squad was announced, I told people I thought that at some stage Jonty would do something magical."
It was the first time in the tournament they felt the weight of expectation. "Pressure is not when you are losing and you have to win, it's when you're expected to do something and you need to do it," Procter said.
Rain reduced the match to 30 overs a side and South Africa conceded at six runs an over, which meant they were up against a difficult chase. Openers Andrew Hudson and Kirsten set South Africa up but the soft middle order that has been a problem in many competitions since showed itself then. Four wickets fell for 35 runs and South Africa squeaked home with five balls remaining.
Two days later, the referendum was held. South Africa, who had qualified for the semi-final, knew that if the outcome of the apartheid vote was "no", they would have to return home. "We followed those developments pretty closely," Procter remembered. The results revealed 68.73% of the 2.8 million people who voted were in favour of dismantling the discriminatory establishment. South Africa could play in the semi-final.
South Africa was still a divided country, but Procter and the team believed their participation in the World Cup went some way towards unifying the nation even as tensions soared at home. "The truth is that we were not yet a democracy and we were not sure whether we were representing everybody, but from the people we could see and the reception we did have, it felt as though the public was behind us and we were symbols for the future."
Although cricket was played by people of all races in South Africa, the 1992 World Cup squad contained only one player of colour, Henry, and none from the country's majority race group of black Africans. That concerned Procter and left him feeling helpless. "The past divided South Africa and people were treated unequally and we knew that but we wanted to show that it could be different."
In the semi-final, another anomaly, which has since haunted South Africa in future tournaments, made its first appearance. Rain intervened to revise South Africa's target of 252 from 43 overs to 22 off 13 balls and then 22 off 1 ball. The calculation was comical but South Africa did not find it funny that they had missed out on the chance to play in the final.
"Everyone was a bit down, even England, because they didn't want to win that way," Procter said. "But we left knowing that we put South Africa on the map, we told them South Africa is back and not looking back."
Two years later, the country held its first democratic elections, and 20 years after that, the team claimed the Test mace. They have yet to win a World Cup.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent