A popular cricket administrator

Ali Bacher was honoured at the Castrol Awards night.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Ali Bacher remembers how India was among the first nations to snap all ties with the then apartheid South Africa. And how India was the first nation South Africa met when the latter returned to the international cricketing fold after years of banishment. Over to S. Dinakar.

A giant statue stares down the square that is a blaze of colours. Inscribed under it are the words: Nelson Mandela — A Celebration of Hope.

In the gushing waters of the fountain facing the beautifully sculpted structure, children, black, white and brown, frolic. The world is one, for the moment at least.

But then, during the drive back from Potchefstroom to Johannesburg, one also saw shanty towns, seemingly without basic necessities.

Crime is rampant in South Africa. Poverty is the chief reason.

The world is still not one.

However, the Nelson Mandela Square in the heart of Johannesburg reflects hope for the future. One battle has been won, and there are more to go.

You look at Mandela and you are reminded of Mahatma Gandhi and his eventful days in South Africa. This country, in several respects, provided the spark for India's epic freedom struggle.

The relations between India and South Africa have historic significance. The cricketing ties are an extension of this special bond.

A rather familiar face looks at the audience from the giant screen. Ali Bacher, the popular cricket administrator, is honoured at the Castrol awards night in Johannesburg.

Bacher is recovering from a heart surgery, but his recorded interview is an engaging one. He remembers how India was among the first nations to snap all ties with the then apartheid South Africa. And how India was the first nation South Africa met when the latter returned to the international cricketing fold after years of banishment.

He speaks about the roaring reception the team received in the City of Joy, and the mammoth crowd at the Eden Gardens — "Andrew Hudson was trembling. He had never seen so many people in one place before."

It is a memorable evening as legends brushed shoulders. Sunil Gavaskar gives away a special award to Sachin Tendulkar for surpassing his record of 34 Test centuries. The little master recalls seeing Tendulkar's talent early, thanks to Mumbai's time-tested cricketing grapevine. "I am happy that my record has been broken by someone I admire as a cricketer." He adds: "One Mr. Brian Lara and Mr. Ricky Ponting are snapping at your heels. I hope you score more hundreds soon to make the gap bigger." Tendulkar smiles.

Tendulkar reveals how Gavaskar gifted him his pads when he was young. "When I did not get the best cricketer award he wrote a touching letter to me. This was hugely encouraging."

Tendulkar is also at his witty best. When compere Harsha Bhogle asks him about his plans for the future, Tendulkar replies, "Well, I would have my dinner now and then go to sleep." The audience is in splits.

India captain Rahul Dravid is adjudged the Indian Cricketer of the Year. Like Tendulkar, he stresses on "living up to one's own expectation."

Dravid is not lacking in humour too. He quips, "It would be good if complacency creeps into the South African ranks after our defeat in the ODI series. Shaun (Pollock) could start by bowling a juicy half-volley!"

Pollock and his wife occupy a table only yards away. The South African heroes who have contributed immensely in India-South Africa matches — Allan Donald, Gary Kirsten, Jonty Rhodes and Pollock — receive special prizes.

Travelling back to his schooldays, Pollock recollects watching the historic match between India and South Africa at the Eden Gardens. "We had been away from international cricket for so long. The telecast was not of the highest quality, but we hardly moved. We understood the importance of the occasion."

It is a pleasant evening in Johannesburg. Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, and M. S. Dhoni also win individual awards. Tendulkar, interestingly, walks away with a prize for his bowling.

Kumble is pleased with his home State Karnataka's performance in the Ranji Trophy. "We have beaten defending champion Uttar Pradesh on its home soil without our full side. Uttar Pradesh played its best team. I think this is a fine achievement. We should qualify for the semifinals."

The fortunes of their Ranji Trophy sides are closely followed by the Indian cricketers. No wonder, Kumble is smiling from ear to ear.

Meanwhile, the Chairman of the selection panel, Dilip Vengsarkar, has arrived in Johannesburg. Even as the sun beats down on the outdoor practice facility at the Wanderers, he comes up with precise answers to queries from the media. He was a majestic batsman in his time. Now, he wants to make a difference as a selector.

Another time, another place. Friends Irfan Pathan and Mahendra Singh cool off in the giant mall close to the team hotel. They are on to a good thing now — gobbling up ice cream.

The cricketing climate, like the weather, is hotting up. But then, life, like cricket, is a celebration of hope.