Out of the darkness of apartheid: The 1991 match where South Africa returned to international cricket, and won Kolkata's heart

It made sense for India, which had been at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement, to lead the way in helping a future multi-racial South Africa emerge from the darkness of apartheid.

Anindya Dutta November 10, 2020 16:18:08 IST
Out of the darkness of apartheid: The 1991 match where South Africa returned to international cricket, and won Kolkata's heart

In 'Nostalgia Drive', Anindya Dutta celebrates a significant victory in Indian cricket which occurred in that corresponding month in history.

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Mumbai may be the nerve centre of Indian cricket, but Kolkata is its heart. Never was this more evident than on 10 November, 1991, when each roar of the ever-emotional and passionate Kolkatans rose like a mushroom cloud over the Eden Gardens. It was the sound of freedom that reverberated not just across the country, but to a land far away, just waking from the darkness of apartheid.

On that day, a white South African, Clive Rice, stood on the lush green turf of the Eden Gardens and uttered the words: ‘I know how Neil Armstrong felt when he stood on the moon.’ Rice had just made a place in history for himself and his boys, leading the first South African cricket team to play an international match in 21 years. A nation besmirched by the dark deeds of its minority white population and shunned for decades by the world for them, was ready to redeem itself.

For a hundred years, going back to the time when a young Indian lawyer — (the yet-to-be-anointed Mahatma) MK Gandhi — had been displaced from a whites-only railway carriage in South Africa, to just a few years before, when its tennis team had walked away from their best chance in history to claim the Davis Cup, India had been uncompromising in taking a stand against atrocities committed on their fellow humans.

It was remarkable, therefore, that South Africa’s sporting redemption would begin in the land which had shunned them the most. What was even more fitting was that this was South Africa’s first ever international match against a non-white team.

Be that as it may, it was to India that a stunned-but-excited Protean cricket team, led by 42-year-old all-rounder Clive Rice (who had made his first class debut in 1969 but never played at the international level), boarded a beat up chartered unmarked Boeing 707 on 7 November, 1991. Kolkata and the appropriately named Eden Gardens awaited them with arms and heart wide open. How this happened is worth revisiting, for the intrigue was the stuff movies are made of.

Pulling off the impossible

Cricket in South Africa was divided along racial lines during the apartheid years, with two boards, the South African Cricket Union (SACU) which Ali Bacher was a part of, and the multi-racial South African Cricket Board (SACB). With the help of the African National Congress (ANC), the two joined hands in June 1991 to form the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA).

A month earlier, Bacher had travelled to London to push the ICC to re-admit South Africa. But he had made no breakthrough, with West Indies, Pakistan and India firmly against white South Africa and its policies.

Bacher was taken aback when David Richards, CEO of the Australian Cricket Board, advised him to contact Jagmohan Dalmiya, the secretary of the BCCI for support. Richards’ suggestion was outrageous and logical at the same time. After all, if India, the most vocal opponent of the regime agreed, the rest would likely follow.

Bacher and Dalmiya hit it off right away. The crucial support, however, had to come from Madhavrao Scindia, the BCCI President. In July at the ICC meeting, Dalmiya persuaded LM Singhvi, India’s High Commissioner, to place a call to Scindia. The purpose was to explain how it made sense for India, which had been at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement, to lead the way in helping a future multi-racial South Africa emerge from the darkness of apartheid.

Dalmiya was a master strategist. While he could easily have called his boss for support, using the High Commissioner gave it the diplomatic push which was essential for this outrageous yet brilliant plan to succeed. Maharaja Madhavrao Jivajirao Scindia was not only the President of the BCCI, but also enjoyed the unique position of being a senior cabinet minister of the newly formed Congress government at the centre. If a diplomatic decision could be reversed, he was the one man who could facilitate it.

Within 24 hours, Scindia had taken special permission from the Government of India and wired it back to Singhvi. As Richards had predicted, when India voted in favour of re-admittance of South Africa at the ICC, the rest of the members followed. A generation of cricketers had missed their chance, but South Africa could finally showcase their incredible talent pool again to the world.

Given the nation’s contribution to the cause, an India tour was the obvious answer to the question about where the first ball would be bowled. The stars appeared to be aligned in no uncertain manner in favour of the tour.

Out of the darkness of apartheid The 1991 match where South Africa returned to international cricket and won Kolkatas heart

It was remarkable that South Africa’s sporting redemption would begin in the land which had shunned them the most. Image via Twitter

Pakistan’s tour of India had been cancelled by the Indian government, and the BCCI was on the lookout for an alternative. An ODI series with South Africa was proposed. An overwhelmed Bacher, for whom things were happening too fast, was summoned to meet Jyoti Basu, the Chief Minister of West Bengal. Basu walked in wearing his trademark dhoti, shook hands and told Bacher, “I want you to play cricket in Calcutta next week.”

So it was said, and so it would be done. In exactly one week, Clive Rice and his team of predominantly white players were on the chartered flight to India to play a series of three One Day Internationals. The first of which was scheduled to be played at the Eden Gardens on 10 November.

When they stepped out at Calcutta’s Dum Dum airport, the stunned South Africans were mobbed by a crowd that had been waiting for hours to welcome them. The 15-mile journey to the Grand Hotel took a few hours, with rose petals showered on the players. The City of Joy had pulled out all the stops as only true lovers of the sport can. The next day the team met Mother Teresa, an experience that was to stay with them for the rest of their lives.

A thriller at the Garden

On 10 November, 1991, 21 years after the last team to emerge from the southern tip of Africa had appeared at an international sporting arena, Clive Rice and his men walked on to the lush green outfield of Eden Gardens to reclaim their rightful place among major cricketing nations.

Unsurprisingly, it was a team of debutants. Ten of the eleven players to turn out for that day, including captain Clive Rice, were playing their first international cricket match. The list included some names that would quickly become familiar to cricket lovers across the world – Peter Kirsten, Andrew Hudson, Brian McMillan, Dave Richardson and Alan Donald.

Only Kepler Wessels, having played for Australia in the past, had experience of the big stage. However, not even Wessels had ever walked into a cricketing arena where far more than the 90,000 ticket holders who should have been present, greeted the teams with a level of noise that an overflowing Brazilian football stadium would be hard-pressed to match. History was about to be made, and no one in Kolkata wanted to miss it.

Mohammad Azharuddin won the toss and elected to field.

On the third ball of the day, a late outswinger from Kapil Dev drew first blood as Andrew Hudson edged one to Kiran More. A few overs later, 38-year-old Jimmy Cook could not keep Srinath’s angled delivery out of his pads, and South Africa was 28 for 2. A responsible innings of 50 from Kepler Wessels and a partnership with Adrian Kuiper, who scored 43, helped take South Africa to 177 for 8 from a weather-affected 47 over innings.

Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar were magnificent in their spells taking two wickets apiece and keeping the South African scoring rate under check. Sachin Tendulkar, in an early exhibition of his penchant to break partnerships for which he would be known in the years to come, got rid of danger man Kepler Wessels. The Indians could be forgiven for going into the break pleased with their performance and optimistic about their prospects.

The optimism was to be short lived, quickly replaced by despair. In their defence, they had neither the benefit of hindsight nor technology. Hence, when young Alan Donald ran in to bowl on that pleasant November afternoon, the fallacy of presumptions was rudely exposed.

Ravi Shastri and Navjot Sidhu opening the innings were all at sea against the pace and movement of the young speedster. Shastri departed in the first over edging a ball behind the stumps, and Manjrekar, who replaced him, didn’t fare much better, watching his stumps go cartwheeling. The reason for wicketkeeper Dave Richardson standing back a third of the way to the boundary had quickly become obvious. At 20 for 3, India was in serious trouble, and Allan Donald was just getting started.

Out of the darkness of apartheid The 1991 match where South Africa returned to international cricket and won Kolkatas heart

South Africa had lost the match, but forever won the hearts of the people of Kolkata. Image via Twitter

As would be the case dozens of times over the course of his long career, it was left to young Sachin Tendulkar to provide his teammates a master class in facing lethal fast bowling. The 18-year-old genius scored 62 in 73 balls before Donald finally managed to dismiss him. By this time, the match had been taken away from the inexperienced South Africans. Praveen Amre chipped in with a sensible 55 and with the help of the lower order, guided India safely to the target with six overs to spare.

Donald’s 5 for 29 in his 8.4 overs had provided just a first glimpse of the brilliant career ahead of him. He would be the first of many South African heroes that the city would embrace as their own. In the decades to come, the names of Lance Klusener, Gary Kirsten and Jacques Kallis among others, would be added to that list.

South Africa had lost the match, but forever won the hearts of the people of Kolkata. In the event, it was only fitting that Rice should invoke Armstrong in his post-match press speech, for it was a landmark moment in the history of world cricket — The Proteas had Landed.

Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India’s Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019 and is long-listed for the MCC Book of the Year.

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