It happened in a trice. One moment they were the pariahs of world cricket and within the blinking of an eye they were playing international cricket. Change had been slow in coming but its acceptance was quick, as fast as a ball from Allan Donald.
The spadework had been done patiently for years. The round of partying in June 1991, in anticipation of a celebratory event to come, was the first real sign that the South Africans were certain to return to the ICC fold. Men on different sides of the racial fence in the Republic were suddenly embracing each other. The world, first stunned by the changes that were taking place, reacted quickly to grant recognition to South African cricket since it had prided itself for years on having stood against the abominable system of apartheid.
The welcome was warm not only in London where the re-entry of the banished South Africans was solemnised. Sport somehow revelled in its own politics than that of the land. Within months of being readmitted to the fold, they were in Calcutta. This was a tour that was thought up in a jiffy, by Jagmohan Dalmiya who has this reputation for thinking on his feet, and lo and behold there was this cricket series being played on Indian soil featuring the South Africans.
The events also took place so quickly that no one may have had the time to sit and think, try to rationalise all that had happened and size up the many implications. So far as the cricketers were concerned, this was just another cricket series though at least two international captains have suffered for being as naive about it as to say “it is, after all, another game of cricket.” The first was Mike Gatting who said once he did not know what apartheid was. The second was Richie Richardson whose comment on the World Cup match against the South Africans did not go down too well in those little islands where they have different views on the subject.
There was irony in the fact that the series welcoming the South Africans began in Calcutta, possibly the last bastion of marxism in a fast changing world. The reality was the South Africans were back in international cricket. And so what was the point in keeping them away from the World Cup? This was an original ICC decision that made no sense at all. It took that august body several months to reconcile itself to the fact that if the South Africans were back in world cricket let them play in the world’s biggest cricketing event, too.
From a series of emotional one-day internationals, it was another quick leap to the World Cup even if it was not a big one in terms of standards. And how well they handled it! The South African team that came to the World Cup was a far more determined side than the one that came to India. The India series was a mere dress rehearsal for the main show on the world stage. The cricketing innocence seen in the series opener in Calcutta was gone. In its place was the toughness of men who had unravelled the secrets of the international game and found that it had no secret at all except its own higher intensity.
The first to be shocked were the world champions, the Aussies. They were decimated by an attack that showed the same propensity to bowl flat out in limited-overs cricket as in the first class game. So far as the South African quicks were concerned, they were least bothered about conservation of energy and such other tactical considerations that seem to overtake any bowler who has been through a few one-day matches. Donald, Meyrick Pringle and Richard Snell were there to bowl flat out and Border’s men took a tumble.
They said it was the momentum generated by the emotions of a comeback to the world stage that had helped the South Africans shatter the reputation of the champion. The truth was that this South African side was able to sustain that momentum until a semifinal place became possible. The team played some extraordinary cricket in the first two weeks of the Cup.
The naivete of Calcutta which led to Jimmy Cook and others to bat as if they were in a Test match was also gone. In its place was the much needed sense of urgency of one-day cricket. Kepler Wessels was there to propel the team from the front and then there was the stalwart of many a limited-overs battle, Peter Kirsten, to maintain that level of activity at the crease. There was an added edge to the fielding to which the grassier grounds down under lent themselves more easily than say the Roop Singh Stadium in Gwalior which, however, provided a most colourful setting to the series as captured in a picture with the fortress on the hill in the background.
By the time the Indians ran into their new foes in Adelaide, a complete transformation had come about in fortunes. If India was the wily side with great experience of one-day cricket in the home series, the South Aficans were cricketers who had rediscovered themselves and were fine tuned for the demands of a World Cup with all its attendant nationalistic fervour. Maybe, such feeling was instrumental in South Africa being a better side than India. Of course the Indians had run out of steam by the time they came to Adelaide. By then they were already out of contention for the Cup; hardly bothering to defend a total of 180.
The difference between the teams was commitment. That came through clearly enough in the preliminaries in which India blew away its chances on stepping on New Zealand soil and in the semifinal where the South Africans were distinctly unlucky not to be given the chance to try their hand at making the last 22 runs off 11 balls.
The rain god was against them, so too the Australian rain rule which proved to be an absurd overcompensation for the ill luck of a team that bats first in a game that is subsequently hit by the weather.
A technical point to be mulled over was also the over rate. The South Africans played to a plan. They were least bothered about any fines so long as the dream of appearing in the final in a maiden World Cup venture would materialise. Such an attitude showed a frightening disregard for the niceties of the game.
Win at any cost was the obvious plan and if it was only a matter of a few dollars standing in the way the team could well afford to pay it. And if it did not someone else would. One could not point a finger at the South Africans so far as the letter of the law was concerned. But sporting spirit seemed to have surrendered to the need to win at any cost.
The South Africans are not the first to transgress the spirit of the laws of the game. They were simply the latest to do so in limited-overs cricket. What the matter of bowling five overs short in the semifinal of a World Cup just to derive an advantage represents is gamesmanship at its highest. The fear as the Indians begin their South African Safari is how far will the hosts be prepared to go in order to win. The feeling is, maybe, they will be prepared to go a long way. And the tourists would have to prepare themselves to face that.
Since the heady run in the World Cup that came apart only late at night under the lights of the Sydney Cricket Grounds, the South Africans have faced disappointments. They have only themselves to blame for their colourless cricket in the one-day series in the Caribbean. But then the absence of the World Cup spirit may have been the root cause. Motivation is easy to find when the event is so hyped up as the game’s quadrennial showpiece. The wicket played the villain’s role in the Test which must have come as a greater disappointment.
It was the classic fourth innings finish, apparently simple for the chaser but loaded with hazards. The South Africans were just not equipped to face such a challenge. The chances are that the team will be better off for the experience. It is not as if there will be a dangerous bad wicket howler like Courtney Walsh to wreck dreams every time. There will come a day, perhaps very soon, on which the South Africans will win their first Test since readmittance to this exclusive club of Test-playing nations, now expanded to nine. There were a mere seven when South Africa last played a Test. But of six opposing Test nations only half, the three ‘white’ nations, England, Australia and New Zealand, were allowed to meet South Africa in the arena.
It’s a different world to which the South Africans have returned. This is a world somewhat taken up by Michael Jackson’s hit ‘Black or White’ in which too there is much irony since the singer himself represents a racial conundrum. As the proposer of the motion to readmit South Africa and as the nation that first played host on its return to official international cricket, India becomes the first national side to visit the Republic.
Whichever way the matches go, and a majority of them are always likely to go the way of the host in the longest tradition of Test cricket, there is no escaping the fact that this tour will be more than just a cricket series. There may be tension born of underlying currents and unbecoming racial attitudes but it is up to the Indians to show their national maturity in racial matters which is at least a few centuries old. In their presence on South African soil will be seen a symbol of the triumph of the battle to break down racial barriers because even if the Indians did not actually join battle they certainly did respond quickly in understanding the signals and coming forward to recognise change as the medium for further change.
This may not be the easiest of tours for a side that did not do well in Australia. This is, however, one side which will not stir up any controversies — over umpiring, playing conditions and so on. The South Africans raised some controversy over the ball tampering issue. In the Indians they will find not only the perfect hosts but also undemanding guests. It is unlikely there will be even a whiff of trouble emanating from the tourists’ side. The Indians have been known to be good ambassadors and this is a role that assumes much importance on a tour on which the cricket may only be incidental to the larger drama of life being played out in South Africa.
This article was published in The Sportstar of October 24, 1992