'Unforgettable': Eksteen, Raju revisit South Africa's iconic Indian tour of 1991

It is 30 years to South Africa's tour of India, a tour that marked its return to the international fold after 21 years. Sportstar speaks to Venkatapathy Raju and Clive Eksteen, both left-arm spinners, on their memories of that series.

Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin with his South African counterpart Clive Rice at the Eden Gardens in 1991.   -  The Hindu

For the South Africans, the tour to India in the winter of 1991 was an eye-opener. Some of the prominent names of world cricket were part of the team, which was led by Clive Rice. At 42, he was the obvious choice for such an important assignment as South Africa returned to the international fold after 21 years of isolation.

It was a path breaking series with three One Day Internationals scheduled at Calcutta, Gwalior and Delhi. “I feel like Neil Armstrong,” was a heart-warming comment by Rice even as the Indians discovered the powerhouse that South African grew into in the coming years.

Sportstar spoke to Venkatapathy Raju and Clive Eksteen, both left-arm spinners, on their memories of that iconic series.

Memories of the series

Raju: It was an amazing experience for all of us. The South Africans were stepping into a new zone. So were we. Few of us had any idea of South Africans other than having known about them from their exploits in the English county league. I am sure they were stunned by the reception they got in Calcutta and the warmth from the fans was a memorable reward for them. The series was played in excellent spirit and produced some awesome cricket. We started brilliantly with the win at Calcutta in the first ODI. The series was clinched at Gwalior before the South Africans showcased their potential at Delhi in a high-scoring contest. Overall, I remember the top quality cricket the fans saw.

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Eksteen: I have many memories of the 1991 tour to India, from getting on a chartered plane that was not only for the team but for those fortunate enough to come along to watch the games. The passion of the people of India was unbelievable, the welcome we received from the people of India is something I will remember for the rest of my life. Our trip from the airport to the hotel took a long time, the streets were lined with people who were welcoming us, unforgettable. Walking out at Eden Garden just before the game was due to start, so special. Meeting Mother Teresa was such a privilege and so humbling. And our visit to the Taj Mahal was wow.

A young Clive Eksteen during the 1991 tour.   -  The Hindu


Playing in front of a packed Eden Gardens…

Raju: Exhilarating. Imagine, every inch was occupied. And there were probably as many people outside the Eden Gardens. When you see such passion, it is but natural that you also look to give your best. The roar when paaji (Kapil Dev) bowled the first ball was incredible. The South Africans were in awe actually. They admitted to little experience of playing in such a huge audience and it took for them to realise that it was an appreciative assembly of fans. I saw some of them rush back to the dressing room and return with their video cameras. They had never seen such a packed stadium and they shot some fascinating stuff for themselves. Kepler Wessels was the most excited. Their love for cricket was pretty obvious. I have always looked forward to playing at the Eden Gardens.

Eksteen: Very intimidating and then losing the toss and being sent into bat was also daunting. There was a bit of mist in the morning which added to the tension. We literally went from playing club cricket the previous weekend  to playing at the biggest cricket ground at the time in front of the most fanatical cricket fans in the world, it was tough.

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What factors did you keep in mind when taking on South Africa/India since it was an unknown opposition ?

Raju: We had heard of some great names from South African cricket - Barry Richards, the Pollock brothers (Graeme and Peter), Ali Bacher, Garth Le Roux. I was fortunate to see some video recordings of their matches from English county cricket. Everyone spoke so highly of South African cricket. We had also heard of the pace of Allan Donald. Also, Kepler Wessels was well known, having played for Australia earlier. We were looking forward to seeing Peter Kirsten and Andrew Hudson but the surprise package was Adrian Kuiper. What a terrific batsman he happened to be.

Venkatapathy Raju.   -  The Hindu


Eksteen: Only Kepler Wessels had ever played in India before so it was tough on all of us and we had some very experienced cricketers but outside of Kepler had never played in any sub-content conditions before. With us growing up on mainly hard and bouncy wickets in South Africa we needed to adjust very quickly. We knew that playing India in India was going to be very hard and with no practise matches we only had a couple of practises to try and get used to the conditions. Actually we did not practise before the second ODI because all our cricket bags got delayed while traveling. Most importantly this game had even more pressure as it was South Africa’s first game out of isolation from international sport .

The standout performances of the series ?

Raju: For us, we had Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil paaji, Kris Srikkanth and Ravi Shastri doing so well but the standout show came from Sanjay Manjrekar. His consistency was the highlight of the series. Donald was bowling really quick but Manjrekar played him superbly. We saw some grand batting performances from Wessels, Kirsten and Kuiper. They all fielded brilliantly. Of course for me Kuiper was a revelation. His range of shots and the power that went into playing them left me in a trance.

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Eksteen: Kepler Wessels was certainly the stand out batsman for us scoring runs in all the games and Allan Donald being the standout bowler for South Africa getting five wickets in the first ODI and three in the second. Kris Srikkanth and Navjot Sidhu's opening stand in the second ODI put us under a lot of pressure but the hundreds by Ravi Shastri and Sanjay Manjrekar were the stand out performances for the Indian team over the series. The partnership between Peter Kirsten and Adrian Kuiper in the third ODI got us over the line to record South Africa’s first ever ODI victory, very very special.

Kepler Wessels and Sanjay Manjrekar shared the 'Man of the Match' award in Gwalior on November 12, 1991.   -  The Hindu


How did the series help prepare India/South Africa to make a huge impact on world cricket?

Raju: The South Africans were hungry for success and wanted to make an impression on world cricket. They succeeded in doing that. We also learnt a few lessons. Discovered hard hitters like Kuiper and Kirsten. They showed how to swing a match when they won at Delhi despite the stiff challenge of (288 to win). They made the runs with plenty to spare. I made some friends and there was a sense of understanding and mutual respect for our cricket. For the South Africans, it was a great experience to visit India and play in front of huge and noisy spectators. The series did a lot for both the teams. What I remember the most is the interactions with them with very helpful cricket debates.

Eksteen: We always knew we had a good team and one that would compete with all international teams but winning the last ODI certainly gave us confidence. Especially winning by chasing down a big total. In Allan Donald, we had one of the best bowlers in the world who was going to lead the attack for years to come. Add to this a group of players who were extremely hungry for international cricket. We had the making of a very competitive team. 

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