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Twenty-one years and eight months after Ali Bacher took a catch at mid-off to dismiss Alan Connolly in a Test at Port Elizabeth, the cricketers of South Africa - isolated ever since because of global opposition to the apartheid policy - rejoined the world by playing three one-day internationals in India. In the intervening years people had often wondered how, when or even whether South Africa's isolation might end: no-one could have dared invent an ending quite so ironic and incongruous as this.
The South Africans arrived in Calcutta, four months after rejoining the International Cricket Council, at the insistence of the Board of Control for Cricket in India after Pakistan had called off a scheduled tour because of worsening Hindu-Moslem tensions. The visit was arranged almost as hurriedly as some of the rebel tours in which South Africa had lately specialised. But it was organised with the special blessing of the Marxist government of West Bengal. Thousands of people lined the route from the airport to the hotel to welcome the team, carrying banners with slogans that only a few months would have been politically unthinkable: "South Africa-India friendship long live". The tourists' plane was said to be the first from South Africa ever to land in India.
Another banner at the hotel welcomed "the Springboks", but this was hurriedly torn down at the insistence of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, which was anxious not to use a nickname associated with the days of exclusively white sport. The 14-man squad - captained by Clive Rice and managed by Bacher, South Africa's last Test captain before isolation - was all white, but the party included four youngsters, two white and two black, brought along for the experience and to make a political and diplomatic point.
The whole South African team, except Kepler Wessels, who had played for Australia, were making their official international debuts and there were signs of naivete in their tactics both on and off the field. Their self-belief was hit by defeats in the two opening matches and was only partially restored by victory in the third. And the Indians were surprised when, in South Africa's very first game back, Bacher made "an informal protest" about the state of the ball, which had apparently been gouged while the Indians were fielding to help it swing. World-weary observers thought it was a little too soon for South Africa to switch from being cricket's pariah to its preacher. The Indians denied any wrong-doing and the South African board president, Geoff Dakin, was obliged to apologise to his hosts.
However, the team itself was experienced, too experienced in the view of the selectors afterwards. They dropped the two most senior batsmen, 42-year-old Rice and 38-year-old Jimmy Cook, before the World Cup and were intent on doing the same to 36 year-old Peter Kirsten before relenting. South Africa's rheumaticky performance in the field, so alien to the country's cricketing conditions, was one of the most surprising features of the trip.
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