South Africa’s tour of India, 1991 - love, hospitality and cricket

South Africa’s visit to India in the winter of 1991 was a memorable one for players and fans alike.

The South African cricket team arrives on November 8, 1991, in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to resume cricket after 21 years of isolation.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

South Africa was a mystery for most of us. There was hardly any visual access to their cricket heroes. Their exploits found sketchy mentions in newspapers. When the Board announced that South Africa, freshly re-inducted into international cricket, ending 21 years of isolation on account of the policy of Apartheid, will travel to India to play three One Day Internationals, the excitement was palpable among fans and players.

Mohammad Azharuddin, who led the team against Clive Rice’s South Africa, remembered the series fondly. “It was a landmark moment in Indian cricket. Credit to the BCCI for paving the way for South Africa’s return and also organising the series at a very short notice. I was happy that India had played a major role in welcoming the South Africans. We greeted them with great hospitality and the fans got to see some fantastic cricket,” Azharuddin told Sportstar.

‘Great fun’

The series was squeezed in ahead of India’s scheduled tour to Australia. Hours after the final game in Delhi, the Indian team flew out to Australia. “It was hectic but great fun. I knew some of the South Africans from my English county. They gave us a good fight and some of them showed their prowess in the limited-overs cricket,” recalled Azharuddin.

“Going out for the toss at the Eden Gardens was a moment I shall never forget,” Rice told this reporter in an interview for The Hindu. “It was like a dream and I will be eternally grateful to India and the Indian people for the warmth they displayed that day. It was a wonderful game, never mind we lost. The occasion, and not the result, was important for me.”

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The South Africans were accorded an unprecedented reception in Calcutta with fans lining up on the entire route from the airport to the team hotel. They loved the ambience. In fact, the South African cricketing team was floored by the Indian tradition of welcoming them. While tradition dictated that every guest is God himself, nothing prepared them for what that entailed. From the ‘Namaste’ with folded hands to getting their foreheads marked with a vermilion dot, the South Africans were enveloped in the warm embrace of Indian tradition.

Fightback

The loss in the first ODI did not dampen their spirits and the second match at Gwalior saw them fight back, perhaps a prelude to what was coming. The ODI was a Benefit match for Indian great G. R. Viswanath and in an incident that embarrassed the hosts, he was stopped at the gate by the police. Viswanath dismissed the incident with a smile but BCCI president Madhavrao Scindia was terribly annoyed at the insult to the genial batsman.

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For Anant Purohit, who was the liaison attached to the Indian team, what stood out was Ravi Shastri accurately guessing the shots K. Srikkanth would play during his half-century. ‘He will play the square cut now. Watch out for the lofted drive.’ As Purohit recalled, “I was amazed at how well he read the mind of not just Srikkanth, but (Navjot Singh) Sidhu and (Sanjay) Manjrekar too.”

Clive Rice with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, on November 9, 1991. - THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

There was royal treatment for the visitors in Gwalior. The dinner experience at the Jai Vilas Palace was a “memorable” feast for Rice. The presence of one of the most endearing cricketers of India, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, and some cinema actors made it a special occasion for the players. “Scindia saab was always a magnificent host,” recalled Azharuddin.

‘In love with India’

“We had been told India truly loved their cricket, but we had no way of being able to comprehend it without seeing it for ourselves,” wrote Mike Procter in his autobiography Caught In The Middle. Procter, one of the finest all-rounders to play the game, was coach of the team on that tour and was overwhelmed by the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa and see the “grand and magnificent” Taj Mahal.

The South Africans signed off with a sensational victory at the floodlit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium where the Indian bowlers saw stars as Adrian Kuiper produced a brand of batting unseen on Indian soil. “My God, he hit the ball so hard,” said Venkatapathy Raju. Kuiper cracked a blistering 63 off 41 balls to steal the limelight from Shastri and Manjrekar, centurions both.

“The picture of Ricey (Rice) standing next to (Mother Teresa), his hands folded together in the Indian tradition of Namaste, remains one of my favourite memories,” wrote the affable Procter.

His effusive praise for Indian cricket and traditions won Procter millions of fans. “I am in love with India,” was Procter’s parting shot.

For us, at the end of the three ODIs there was nothing mysterious about the South Africans anymore. They were the new force in international cricket as India discovered a year later — losing the Test and ODI series on its historic tour to South Africa.

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