When Hashim Amla walked out to the middle at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, in 2004, he became the 295th player to represent South Africa in Test cricket. Remarkably though, he was only the first cricketer of Indian origin to make it to the highest level in the Rainbow Nation.
This is surprising because Durban boasts the highest population of Indians, or people of Indian origin, outside of the mother country. And cricket has travelled with these Indians to every corner of the globe. So why should South Africa be an exception?
It is not surprising that it took so long for an Indian-origin player to get a Test cap in South Africa, because everything in the country, even after freedom, democracy and unity took root, is coloured by race.
To accurately trace the struggles of Indian-origin players in South Africa, you take a trip to Lenasia, a suburb south of Johannesburg that is not so much little India, but the spiritual home of Indians in the region. While Lenasia of 2018 is much like any other suburb in a big city — automobile showrooms, malls, gated communities — it is different in that it has more than 30 mosques and nearly as many temples.
Cricket and Lenasia
Cricket is synonymous with Lenasia, a settlement that came together when Indians were forcibly removed from their homes in different parts and relocated here. Back in 1970s the Lenasia Cricket Stadium was built, its pavilion put up by M. R. Varachia, an Indian.
While there were enough Indians playing cricket, and even doing well, there was no chance of them being allowed to play provincial cricket, thanks to the ruling government’s apartheid policies. Aslam Khota, a Lenasia veteran, and now a popular and successful television and radio commentator, remembers those dark times. “There were so many good players back then who would have made the cut but for the policies that were in place,” he says. “There was Papad Dinanath who scored runs regularly, all while eating poppadums that he kept in his pocket — can you believe that?There was Siddique Conrad, Amien Varaiwa, Hossain Ayoob … the list is long.”
No room for the coloured
But, Khota, who had to settle for playing for Transvaal B, says that players of colour were not merely unwelcome, their feats would go unnoticed. “Hussain Manack once scored a hundred and took 10 wickets in an innings playing league cricket in England. None of the newspapers wanted to even report it,” says Khota.
Manack is now one of South Africa’s selectors, and things are certainly looking up for players of Indian origin as the country changes and embraces more players of colour from all sections of society. Since Amla, Tabraiz Shasi, Imraan Khan and Keshav Maharaj of Indian origin have been handed Test caps. Khota explains why Amla’s breakthrough was such a significant one. “Hashim playing for South Africa is not just a big thing for him or his family. It is the fruit of the labour of many decades when Indians played the game at whatever level they could even though they had no chance of making it to the top,” he says. “There were always dreams, but those were dashed by the policies of the time. Hashim playing for South Africa, and then going on to be one of the best batsmen in the world is proof — if any was needed — that Indians could playing alongside whites and do just as well as them, if not better.”
If Hashim is the poster boy of the revolution, the latest entrant to the club, Maharaj, has cricket fans going gaga over his left-arm spin. On pitches that do little for slow bowlers, Maharaj has found a way to be successful. With a clean, fluent action, Maharaj puts a lot of revs on the ball, getting classical loop and also turn. Add to this an excellent straight ball, and you have a player who is going to be around for a while to come.
You might say Keshav’s entry into cricket was destined, for his father, Athmanand, a wicket-keeper who played for Natal B, was told by his good friend, Kiran More, that the child would go on to achieve great things when he was only three years old. While More might only have been indulging a buddy, there are few prouder fathers in cricket than Athmanand.
“He started as a left-arm medium-pace bowler, but once he converted to spin, I was very hopeful that he could do well. As a wicket-keeper I used to watch spinners closely and I think I understood a thing or two about spin bowling,” says Athmanand, while recalling his own struggles. “It was very difficult for us in those days. We had no facilities, no grounds, no infrastructure.”
Raising the game
Fortunately, Keshav has had no such issues. Even as a teenager he was taken to the nets when international teams toured South Africa, and impressed, picking up the wicket of Inzamam-ul-Haq. Keshav’s progression through age-group cricket, and his rededication to serious cricket as a young adult proved timely. Keshav, who was on the heavier side, spent the off-season training hard, tweaked his diet, and with improved fitness levels began to take wickets regularly in domestic cricket. Just as South Africa’s experiment with Imran Tahir as a Test spinner ended, and the likes of Simon Harmer failed to establish themselves, Maharaja was ready to raise his game. Since South Africa’s readmission to international cricket in 1992, no spinner has taken 50 wickets in fewer Tests than Maharaj.
It may be too early to say that Indians have regained their right place in South African cricket, for there is much more to come. If the odds were stacked against them because they were too brown, till the 1990s, it is now that much more difficult to make it through because of the policy of Affirmative Action, where black South Africans get preference over players of similar abilities from other races. The good, thing, though, is that progress has been made, and the door is not shut on Indians in South Africa.
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