Relations between India and South Africa were based on mutual disregard for much of the 20th century. It was ironic, then, that India was instrumental in South Africa's return to international cricket.
India and South Africa had not played each other before the latter were banned from international cricket. Like other non-white countries, India was strongly opposed to the apartheid regime. In 1974, the Indian Davis Cup team refused to play the finals of the tournament because their opponents were the South Africans. A big factor in the chilly relations between the two countries was the status of thousands of Indian immigrants in South Africa, who were denied citizenship till as late as 1960 and had restrictions placed on their ownership of land; in fact, those who owned property in what later came to be classified as whites-only neighbourhoods had to sell them to the government at a fraction of what it was worth.
The brutal apartheid regime, which was in place for nearly half a century starting 1948, led to South Africa's sporting isolation from the 1950s onward. International cricket tours to the country ended in 1970, and the revival had to wait over 20 years, when the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of incarceration opened up the possibility of South Africa regaining international sporting recognition.
A pioneering figure in getting the country back in the fold was Dr Ali Bacher, the former captain turned administrator, who had been in the news for the wrong reasons in the 1980s for organising rebel tours to South Africa by teams from West Indies, England, Sri Lanka and Australia. Cricket in South Africa was divided along racial lines during the apartheid years, with two boards, the South African Cricket Union (SACU), which Bacher was a part of, and the multi-racial South African Cricket Board (SACB). The unification of the board was the start of the process.
With the help of the African National Congress (ANC), the two boards formed a unified front and merged to form the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA) in June 1991. The unification was crucial to the cause of re-admission, as the ICC and its member boards had to be convinced that cricket in South Africa had turned over a new leaf.
The other central figure in the effort was Steve Tshwete, a high-ranking ANC official who, like Mandela, had served time at Robben Island. He was known to be an expert facilitator who had earned the nickname "Mr Fixit" for his skill at bringing adversaries together.
In March 1991, Bacher and Tshwete travelled to Harare to meet the high commissioners of India and Pakistan. In May they headed to London to meet with the ICC to push for full-member status and a quick return to international cricket. David Richards, then the CEO of the Australian Cricket Board, advised Bacher to contact Jagmohan Dalmiya, the secretary of the BCCI for support. Bacher did, and journalist and author Mihir Bose quotes Dalmiya's first reaction to that call: "I didn't know you could ring India from South Africa."
It didn't take long for Bacher to get his point across, and the two hit it off. Between April and July there were about 40 phone calls between the two, by Bacher's estimation. But South Africa's readmission still needed the approval of the BCCI president, the late Madhavrao Scindia, as well as the support of West Indies and Pakistan, who were against white South Africa. Bacher knew that the ANC's support would prove vital.
The ICC scheduled a meeting in London in July, which Dalmiya and Bacher attended. Dalmiya approached the Indian High Commissioner in London, LM Singhvi, to enlist his support. Things got off to a rocky start when, according to the cricket historian Boria Majumdar, "Singhvi threw a fit and told Dalmiya this was a diplomatic decision which only had to be taken by the Indian government and nobody else".
Singhvi came around eventually and on the eve of the meeting placed a call to Scindia with Dalmiya by his side to explain why it made sense, in the context of the anti-apartheid movement, for India to support South Africa. The next day Scindia took special permission from the Indian government and wired it back to Singhvi, giving Dalmiya the green light.
Bose writes of Tshwete's role in the affair. Tshwete, who was then busy with the first-ever ANC Congress in Durban, headed to London, where Bacher had been trying all day to get in touch with Scindia in New Delhi. When he did get through, Bacher briefed Scindia for 20 minutes on the background of the proposal before handing the phone to Tshwete. A tense Bacher described it as the most "nerve-wracking 15 minutes he had spent". It culminated in Tshwete putting his arm around Bacher and saying, "Don't worry about it. It has been done." Half an hour later Dalmiya called and said, "I have just had a call from Scindia. Everything's okay. He's instructed me to propose South Africa."
The India vote was a huge breakthrough and South Africa were officially readmitted. "In fact, Sir Clyde Walcott, the former West Indies batsman, wasn't even in favour of tabling it in the ICC meeting, but the Indians championed it and forced it in," says Majumdar. Such was India's influence that Pakistan fell in line and West Indies eventually seconded the vote after India pushed for it. According to Majumdar, there was a sense of urgency to promote the new South Africa through cricket and not any other sport. Had it not been for the ICC meeting in July, South Africa would probably have made their official re-entry into international sport through the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, missing the cricket World Cup in 1992.
The ICC had scheduled a meeting in Sharjah in October to discuss South Africa's participation in the 1992 World Cup. The hosts, Australia, were keen on having South Africa play. And though at the annual general meeting of the BCCI, Dalmiya had been ousted and replaced by Scindia's candidate, Scindia himself attended the Sharjah meeting and endorsed South Africa for the World Cup.
Bacher and other top UCBSA officials, Krish Mackerdhuj and Geoff Dakin, headed to India shortly after. It turned out to be perfect timing. The BCCI was in a predicament as a home series against Pakistan had been cancelled, and they were keen to have South Africa send a team to play an ODI series as soon as possible. Events had come full circle too soon for Bacher, for whom it seemed an overwhelming prospect. He was sold on the idea only after he was summoned to meet the chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu. "Basu, an unreconstructed Stalinist, came in, took one look at Bacher and said, 'I want you to play cricket in Calcutta next week,'" Bose writes. The gesture swept Bacher off his feet.
It was fulfillment of a deep-seated desire of Bacher's. The night of South Africa's readmission, he had hosted a dinner at London's Westbury Hotel where Sunil Gavaskar was one of the guests. Bacher speculated on who South Africa's first opponents would possibly be and insisted it be India or another non-white country. "We have never played them. After 102 years of playing international cricket, the new South Africa has to start with them," Bacher had said.
Within 24 hours of the November meeting, the tour was underway. The BCCI overcame logistical issues to arrange a three-ODI series, in Calcutta (Dalmiya's stronghold), Gwalior (Scindia's hometown) and New Delhi. Though Dalmiya was out of power in the BCCI, he was still powerful in Calcutta cricket, so securing a match for Eden Gardens wasn't a problem. A predominantly white South African team was put together, with Clive Rice as captain. For South Africa it was a way of repaying India for their support in having them readmitted.
Bacher returned to South Africa and quickly got down to work, arranging for a team sponsor (Panasonic) and a television deal to broadcast the matches. He also had to arrange for a chartered flight to take the team, officials, wives, media and supporters to India. On November 7 the tour party assembled at Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg for the historic flight. No South African aircraft had flown into Indian airspace before. One of the journalists on board described the aircraft as "a clapped-out old Boeing 707 with no markings. The seats were decrepit, it was uncomfortable, but Trevor Quirk [the commentator], had a couple of crates of beer, so a big group of us smoked and drank all the way."
Their reception in Calcutta surpassed all expectations. Upon landing, some of the South Africans mistook the large gathering of people near the airport for protesters, but they had actually gathered to welcome the team. Children waved flags, flower petals were showered over the players, and the 15-mile journey took a few hours. They were the toast of the city and the crowning moment was their meeting with Mother Teresa the next day.
The emotions caught up with the tourists when they took guard for the first match at Eden Gardens on November 10. The ground was packed to capacity. India won the low-scoring game by three wickets, and sealed the series with another win in Gwalior but lost the third in Delhi.
South Africa finally had a taste of international cricket again. Rice summed it up perfectly: "I know how Neil Armstrong felt when he stood on the moon."
A History of Indian Cricket by Mihir Bose (Andre Deutsch, 2002)
Ali - The Life of Ali Bacher by Rodney Hartman (Penguin Books, 2004)