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Feature

How Ali Bacher's life offers us a ringside view of South African cricket's complicated history

He led the side at their peak during apartheid, presided over their readmission, and helmed the board during some of its most momentous and difficult years

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
04-May-2023
A view of the <I>Life of Ali Bacher</i> exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town, February 2023

A view of the Life of Ali Bacher exhibition in Cape Town recently  •  Firdose Moonda/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"It's not just a story about one person or one sport, it's the story of South Africa."
That's how one researcher described the experience of putting together the exhibition The Life of Ali Bacher, which ran at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town recently.
Twice. Not because there was too much for one showing but because it proved too popular - at a time when the country grapples with which parts of history should be celebrated and which should be hidden away.
Bacher's legacy is a bit of both. With him at the helm as a player and captain, South Africa's most dominant apartheid-era team beat Australia 4-0. With him as an administrator, South Africa's white cricket teams got professional contracts, enjoyed the innovation of Sunday cricket, and survived 30 years of international isolation. With Bacher, South Africa returned to the global sporting stage before the country even had democratic elections.
But he had little to do with cricket thriving in communities of colour in South Africa, as a means of protest and a pursuit of passion, albeit without major accolades or commercial impetus. Without him, the rebel tours of the country that further othered the excluded majority population may not have taken place, and without him, the unification process that allowed the white establishment to all but swallow most of the boards of colour may have looked entirely different.
His is a story of ifs, buts and maybes, and there was no running away from any of those in the exhibition, which recorded more than a century of history, signposted by the contrasts of desperation and privilege that continue to define this country. Officially South Africa has the highest income inequality in the world and has always been a place of haves and have-nots, separated by vast divides.
When the Bachers first arrived in South Africa, they were part of the latter group. Bacher's father, Koppel, came to the country from Lithuania in 1923 with his widowed mother and four siblings. Bacher's mother, Rose, arrived five years later, from Poland. Both families were escaping the rising tide of antisemitism, effectively a form of racism, in Eastern Europe, and both were lucky to have left when they did. The towns that Koppel and Rose grew up in were occupied by the Nazis and their entire Jewish populations massacred.
By then Koppel and Rose were married, had set up a trading store in the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg, and had three young children. A fourth, whom they called Aron when he arrived, was on the way. South Africa did indeed provide this immigrant family with opportunity, ironically at the same time as plans were being put in place to legally deny the same to the bulk of the people in the country. That was something Bacher would only learn about later.
In his youth, though his parents had separated by then, he seemed to live a carefree, sports-mad existence. His brothers played rugby, squash and hockey, while he took up football, tennis and cricket, and from a young age was a leader among his peers. That led to the nickname Ali, given to him by a family friend, who likened Bacher's group of schoolboys to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Bacher was seven years old when he was selected for the Under-10s, and 15 when he was picked for the schools first XI, where he topped the batting charts for two successive years. He was 17 when he made his first-class debut, and scored his first century in the same year
There are family and school photos documenting all this in the exhibition, but not originals. Instead, copies have been printed for display - the idea being that the exhibits can move to anywhere this story needs to be told.
There haven't been any takers yet, though Bacher's old school, King Edward VII in Johannesburg (also the alma mater of Kevin McKenzie, Ray Jennings, Graeme Smith, Neil McKenzie and Quinton de Kock) has expressed some interest.
Balfour Park Cricket Club, where Bacher began playing at the age of 12, and which was presided over by Tuxie Teegar, the man who would later become his father-in-law, is another option. And then, of course, there is the Wanderers Stadium, where Bacher was likened to Don Bradman by the Sunday Times.
That is not to say there may not be some concerns over how the future might look back on a legacy like Bacher's. For several years under the previous Gauteng dispensation, former apartheid-era white cricketers were made to feel unwelcome at the venue, in a reversal of the way players of colour were treated in the past. This is changing, with attempts to build bridges and understand the nuances involved in dealing with a complicated past. In Bacher's case, for example, it would mean acknowledging his role as an intern for two years at the Baragwanath and Natalspruit Hospitals, both facilities for the treatment of people of colour only, in the 1960s, when political unrest was starting to stir as the anti-apartheid movement gained traction, and his opting for the comforts of a private practice three years later.
Immediately after captaining South Africa to that historic win over Australia, Bacher opened up rooms as a general practitioner. At the time GPs were not allowed to advertise, so Ali's team-mate Lee Irvine and his wife, Helen, would go and sit in the waiting area to create an illusion of business. There are pictures of Bacher treating patients of colour, shortly after being appointed national captain, and anecdotes about him caring more about cricket than medicine in the exhibition. In what is now a humorous tale, Bacher paid a house call to Kevin McKenzie and first spent time discussing cricket before eventually examining and diagnosing him with encephalitis, a condition that causes inflammation in the brain.
Bacher's own health troubles began about a decade later. He had a heart attack at 39, and his first bypass. He has since had a second, as well as two pacemakers fitted, and he is awaiting the installation of his third later this month. He took the initial scare seriously, quit smoking, took up jogging, and decided he would take up a full-time role in cricket. He was named director of cricket at Transvaal in 1981, and went on to become their managing director. He was also appointed special consultant to the South African Cricket Union and played a key role in organising the rebel tours.
The visits by West Indies in 1982-83 and 1983-84 were particularly controversial, given that that team was comprised entirely of black players. Had they been South Africans, they would not have been allowed to compete. A striking element of the exhibition is a quote from Bacher that reveals that part of his motivation for the tours was to "be an inspiration to our young black cricketers". That would in retrospect sound oddly out of place, coming from a white man who was doing tricks to bring black players into the country as honorary whites - which is what the touring West Indians were called at the time - but Bacher did walk his talk. In the 1980s he helped set up development programmes in townships. This year, the mini-cricket (previously sponsored by Baker's and now by KFC) celebrated its 40th anniversary. A commemorative event was held in Soweto and, in another indication of how fragmented things remain, Bacher was not invited.
Ask him and he will tell you he understands. Things like the 1990 England rebel tour under Mike Gatting, which even his daughter Lynn was against, increased the feelings of animosity cricket lovers of colour felt towards Bacher. However, that tour was followed by Bacher meeting with Steve Tshwete, an African National Congress activist who would go on to become minister of sport under Nelson Mandela. Bacher and Tshwete became friends and worked together to unite the different racial cricketing boards and lobby for South Africa's reinstatement at the ICC. Tshwete died in 2002, when Bacher was organising the World Cup.
Having come through being betrayed by Hansie Cronje (who first denied involvement in match-fixing only to backtrack and say he was guilty) and the King Commission set up to investigate match-fixing in South African cricket, Bacher's finale was that 2003 World Cup, where some of his focus was on what we might today call "sportainment". At the time, the United Cricket Board was not convinced it should spend money on non-cricketing gimmicks but Bacher lobbied for funding and secured icons of the South African music scene such as Johnny Clegg and Hugh Masekela, and more than 5000 performers, to put on a show. The tournament itself had its challenges, from England's refusal to play in Zimbabwe, New Zealand's withdrawal from their match in Kenya, and South Africa's early exit, but it was declared an on-field and financial success, allowing Bacher to bow out with a bang.
Since then he has busied himself with authoring books on South Africa's best bowlers, batters and allrounders, spent 14 years working in a non-executive position at Right to Care, a healthcare and HIV non-profit, and been a grandfather to eight.
In all that time he has never been far from South African cricket. When former CSA CEO Thabang Moroe (since dismissed for misconduct) was trying to woo Graeme Smith into taking the director-of-cricket job, they met at Bacher's home to try and broker a deal. It failed on the first attempt and only eventually succeeded when Moroe was suspended - though Smith didn't last long in the role, walking away after little more than two years in the job, and returning since as the SA20 league commissioner.
Fitting the league into the prime summer window is one of the reasons South Africa will play less Test cricket, and there are some arguments that CSA is essentially working against itself by prioritising the league over the national men's team.
No longer a pariah state, but with the goodwill that came with being dubbed the rainbow nation running out, South Africa is a country that has to find solutions to difficult problems like rolling blackouts, youth unemployment, corruption and crime. For example, in attempting to preserve its relationship with an old ally, Russia, South Africa has found itself in a place where it will not condemn the war crimes committed in Ukraine.
Even the biggest pictures are made up of details. And that's the reason an exhibition like The Life of Ali Bacher is so important. It had hardly any artefacts because Ali hadn't kept any (the only South African cricket necktie on show, from one of the 1960s tours, had to be borrowed from Lee Irvine) - but it tells the story of almost 100 years of South African history, from one perspective, and mostly through the life of one man, but it's so much more.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket