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Ashley Mallett

Madiba and the godfather

With the help of Nelson Mandela, Ali Bacher took cricket into the black townships of South Africa in the 1980s

Ashley Mallett
Ashley Mallett
Protesters hold up an anti-apartheid banner outside Lord's while England and South Africa play a Test in 1965  •  Getty Images

Protesters hold up an anti-apartheid banner outside Lord's while England and South Africa play a Test in 1965  •  Getty Images

As the January sun set low over Robben Island, the 1970 Australian cricket team attended a garden party hosted by the South African prime minister, Johannes Vorster, at his Cape Town residence. Nelson Mandela's term behind bars had entered its seventh year. He was probably cracking rocks on Robben Island the very instant Bill Lawry's men were being feted by Vorster.
I noted with discomfort the brusque attitude of Vorster and his ministers towards the black waiting staff. I imagined it was the closest thing to a Nazi garden party I would ever experience.
Apartheid made it a living hell for the non-whites of the republic. A pall of hopelessness had enveloped them: their collective spirit cowered to the inhumane whip of apartheid. Separate toilets, buses, beaches, the Group Areas Act, the need to carry the pass that designated a black person as "second class" were all huge burdens; psychologically and practically too heavy a cross to bear. By some obscure take on a religious text, blacks were perceived by the South African whites, especially the Afrikaner, as "hewers of wood and drawers of water".
At Berea Park in Pretoria, Lawry's men played to an all-white audience. As Wisden recorded matter-of-factly: "No coloured-skin people were permitted to attend."
Once, in a leafy suburb close to the Wanderers cricket ground in Johannesburg, I set eyes on a scene that would have been perfectly realistic if you happened to be riding a buggy down a street in 1840s New Orleans. Ten black men chained together dug the road with picks. There was a surreal rhythm as the boss man blew a whistle and the men raised their picks and swung them in unison, all to the sound of a low, murmuring lament.
Lawry's team was on a seven-month tour of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India and South Africa. In October 1969, each of us received a letter from Peter Hain, an anti-apartheid activist, who pleaded with us to abandon the South African leg of our tour. No one quit the tour, but Hain's movement helped stop the South African tour of England in 1970, and our four-Test series proved to be the last Test cricket series of the apartheid era.
Before the first Test of the series I met the acclaimed actor Trevor Howard in a Cape Town restaurant. He said he was in town for the Test. "Oh and I think there's some sort of overdue preview for a film we made some time back." The Battle of Britain had been, in fact, made in 1969, but some reckoned the South African government had set its bloodhounds out to ensure no one of non-white blood appearing in the film got any kudos.
The South Africans had a host of fabulous players, including Graeme and Peter Pollock, Barry Richards, Mike Procter and Eddie Barlow. They were led by a medical doctor, Ali Bacher, son of a Lithuanian Jew, who fled the Holocaust to settle in South Africa.
With his brothers Yudel and Issy, young Ali played impromptu games of cricket in the garage of their father's home in Roodepoort, a farming community 20 minutes' drive from Johannesburg. The Bacher children lived with their mother, Rose, in Johannesburg. Rose loved sport and she helped fire Ali's passion for the game of cricket by presenting him with Sir Donald Bradman's book The Art of Cricket. Once, during a golden run with the bat, teenager Ali was described by one local newspaper as the "Bradman-like Bacher". The following week Ali was dismissed first ball and his mother said with a smile, "Donald Bradman, eh? Next they'll be calling you Donald Duck!"
I was standing near Dr Ali Bacher in a Johannesburg hotel in 1989, when I overheard a black porter utter in hushed tones to his colleague, "That is the godfather, Dr Bacher… he has the ear of Madiba…"
Bacher eventually got into first-class cricket, excelled for Transvaal, and made it to the national side. During the isolation years and after, he grew to be an influential figure in the country's cricket.
In the wake of the D'Oliveira affair, South Africa not touring England or Australia, and the troubled rugby tour of Australia, international pressure caused the republic to be ostracised from big sport. The South Africans' initial reaction to the ban was to follow in the steps of the Boer: they circled the wagons and retreated deep into the laager, where purely domestic cricket was played.
In Australia, World Series Cricket came along in the second half of the decade, and the 1969-70 tours were very much a catalyst for Kerry Packer's involvement in the sport. He wanted TV rights, and that aspiration fit perfectly with those of the players, who were after a better deal. Lawry's men endured dreadful conditions in India, where they stayed in shabby hotels and ate dreadful food. A slice of toast, half a banana and a swig of Scotch was often a hearty breakfast for some of our bowlers in the subcontinent, where Delhi belly reigned supreme. We also later learnt that our lives were insured for $400 per man.
Then came South Africa, where though the hotels were good, we made a majority decision to opt out of the fifth Test. The Australian board wanted us to play an extra Test for a sum of $200 extra each man. We refused. The South Africans said they would throw in an extra $300 per to make it up to $500. However, we again refused, the argument being that our board should have made that offer, not the host nation. To his credit, Lawry took the blame and it cost him his Test spot a few months later.
While Packer's WSC did not come to pass until 1977, many of the tourists of 1969-70 - men such as Ian Chappell, Doug Walters, Ian Redpath, Graham McKenzie and yours truly - were so incensed with the board's attitude towards them that all that was needed was a hook. A year before World Series started, then Australian Council of Trade Unions boss Bob Hawke was in talks with Chappell, Bob Cowper and others with a view to starting up a players' union. That didn't get off the ground. Hawke, of course, went into federal politics and became prime minister in 1983, but by then WSC had come and gone and Packer had got his way - the much-prized television rights. Packer's timing was perfect for him and for us. That the players were so keen to join WSC harks back to the Lawry tour.
Meanwhile in South Africa, Bacher realised that cricket in his homeland would die if youngsters were denied a chance to play for their country. He fought for a form of international cricket in the guise of "rebel" tours, where teams from England, Sri Lanka, Australia and the West Indies toured the republic. He knew also that the game had to be taken to the natives.
On October 6, 1986, Bacher took a team to Elkah Stadium in Soweto, a teeming black township of more than two million people. Nelson Mandela, who had been transferred to Pollsmoor Prison from Robben Island in 1982, knew of Bacher's planned visit. At that time few whites, unless they were secure inside an armoured personnel carrier with appropriate firepower, dared to venture into the black townships.
Armed with Baker's Biscuits t-shirts, cricket bats made from wood palings, and dozens of red balls, Bacher's team of cricket crusaders arrived to be greeted by about 1000 cheering kids and a host of smiling mothers. The general sentiment was along the lines of: "Okay, Mr White Man. You want to show us how to play cricket. We want to learn. Show us. And one day we'll beat you at your own game."
The banned African National Congress held the whip hand in the townships and if Mandela had so ordained, the white "crusaders" could have been in dire trouble. Mandela had himself formed the armed wing of the ANC, "Umkhonto we Sizwe" or "Spear of the Nation."
Mandela sent word through an intermediary that no harm would come to Bacher or his men when they took cricket to the townships. The man who would later become the South African president enlisted special ANC security men to ensure the safety of the Bacher expedition, and they later became good friends.
After his release from 27 years in jail, when he was South Africa's president, Mandela would ask Dr Bacher: "How's Donald Bradman?"
I was standing near Bacher in a Johannesburg hotel in 1989, when I overheard a black porter utter in hushed tones to his colleague, "That is the godfather, Dr Bacher… he has the ear of Madiba…"
Mandela's influence helped get South African cricket back on the world stage. His appearance at the 1995 rugby World Cup final, where he wore the iconic Springbok jersey, galvanised the spirit of the people. The Mandela brand of peace and humility touched us all.

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor