`To me the game is all about history'

DR. ALI BACHER, former Managing Director, United Cricket Board of South Africa was in Mumbai recently for the India release function of his book: Ali — The Life of Ali Bacher. Excerpts from an interview:

G. VISWANATH

DR. ALI BACHER, former Managing Director, United Cricket Board of South Africa was in Mumbai recently for the India release function of his book: Ali — The Life of Ali Bacher. Excerpts from an interview:

Dr. Ali Bacher... sharing his experiences and recording the past. — Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

Question: Mr. Nelson Mandela has praised you in the foreword. He has said he admires your wonderful qualities and called you a leader. What does this mean to you?

Answer: I feel very humbled. For me to have met him on quite a few occasions is a privilege. He's an extraordinary man. He's the greatest South African of all time. When he was introduced to any person at cricket matches he always had a stock phrase: "You may not remember me''. We just burst out laughing. He's a warm and humble person and a great man.

When and why did you decide to write this book?

I remember it's in the mid 80s when a sports journalist told me to put it all in paper. I had quite a few requests thereafter. But something changed when Steve Tshwete (South Africa's Sports Minister and ANC member) died. We were very close friends. In the early nineties, Steve and other members of the ANC did some remarkable things to help South African sport and get us back into international cricket. These things have never been recorded. It's all part of our history. It was then for the first time that I felt that it's my responsibility to record it all; Mandela, Thabo Mbeki (now President of South Africa) and Tshwete's contribution to South African sport. The ANC came to power only in 1994, but they saw the benefits of the development programme in the early 1990s and helped to unite South African cricket. They opened the door for us to participate in international cricket long before they came to power. They held the key. When Steve died I decided to record what transpired behind the scenes during that dramatic period in the history of our country. The Gatting tour was the watershed in the history of South African sport. I have enjoyed recording everything in the book.

It's my first book. There's hardly any cricket book in South Africa. Another reason for writing this book is that it will encourage cricketers like Makhaya Ntini and Jacques Kallis to share their experiences in the form of a book with a writer because that's part of creating a culture. Our cricket loving public doesn't know about the past and about the former great cricketers which is so different from Australia, where there's a strong cricket culture. I think books are part of creating culture. So I have started that process.

Early in the 1990s when political changes were taking place, I sensed we would return to the international fold. I called one of the promising fast bowlers in the country and told him to get fit, train and start reading some books on fast bowling. He went to Australia for the World Cup. I gave him a book written by Frank Tyson, he did not know who Frank Tyson was. To me the game is all about history, the greats and their epic moments and great clashes. So South Africa is lacking in this side of the game, not knowing the past.

Former India captain Kapil Dev releasing Dr. Ali Bacher's book in Mumbai. -- Pic. SHASHI ASHIWAL-

Would you like to highlight the good times you had over a period of 43 years?

On the field there were two great moments. One is when the Transvaal team that I led in 1966 beat Bobby Simpson's Australian team. That's the first time ever an Australian team had been beaten in South Africa. And then in 1970 when I was given the opportunity of leading South Africa against Bill Lawry's Australian team.

Off the field there were two moments. The unification of South African cricket in 1991 was an important moment for me. Then came the opportunity to direct the World Cup in 2003, which was far bigger than cricket in South Africa. It was about empowerment, tourism and South Africa being on the centre stage of the world. A billion Rand came into South Africa because of the World Cup. It was an economic success. From the cricket point of view we made a surplus of 4.5 million Rand. But the unification process was the most significant event.

Your thoughts of Hansie Cronje? In one of the interviews in the early nineties, you said he had the potential to be an outstanding captain?

Let me tell about my deductions about Hansie Cronje. It was in the 1980s that I saw him as a natural leader. I met him when he was about 15 or 16 and I knew that he would one day become captain of South Africa, which he proved to be. That's a fact.

The second thing is once the news broke about his association with bookmakers, I felt he had erred grievously. He knew it and his family knew it. But deep down I felt for him because the pain and anguish he and his family went through was immense. At the end of his testimony before the King Commission he just broke down. My heart sunk.

Was he bluffing? You put up a stout defence for a few days after the Delhi police exposed him?

He did for a short period. He was not honest to me. Let me tell how easy it was then for any player to get entrapped by bookmakers. Two or three months ago I was in the company of one of the cricketers who was prominent in the 1990s, who played for South Africa and was a very good friend of Hansie. He told me a story of a game of a triangular series played in the sub-continent.

According to this cricketer one of the overseas cricketers playing in the triangular asked Hansie "if he wants to earn a few extra bob, dollars". He told Hansie "once a week he will get a phone call and all he has to do is tell that person, who is going to open the batting and bowling and if he won the toss whether he would bat or bowl". Hansie turned it down. This cricketer said "how easy it was to get sucked in".

So what happened thereafter was that Hansie went on a different route and once he started off, he got sucked in. At the end of the 1990s, according to this cricketer and it was also my observation, Hansie lost his cool. He was not calm in the late 1990s. In retrospect I can say that his association with bookmakers was playing in his mind and it was worrying him. I am told that once bookmakers got you, they got you for life. They blackmail you. You are entrapped and you cannot get out. I believe he (Hansie) wanted to get out.

Before the 1999-2000 season, one day I was shocked when I came to know that Hansie had signed to coach Glamorgan. He was under contract with the UCB. Glamorgan is a minor county and why would one in South Africa, who was seen as a role model, who had the world at his feet and an icon, want to throw away an international career and go to Glamorgan. I spoke to the CEO at Glamorgan County and berated him for working behind our back. I told Hansie he is not going to Glamorgan. I am confident that he wanted to get out of it (association with bookmakers) and hence wanted to get out of international cricket. That's it.

Something else also happened. South Africa played in the sub-continent in February-March 2000 and was scheduled to go to Sri Lanka in April and August. Sri Lanka sent me the tour schedule and I in turn sent it to Hansie to know his comments. I phoned the manager Ghulam Rajah (in India) to hand over the tour programme to Hansie and find out if he's happy with the programme. That's usually what we do. Two days later, Ghulam called me and said: "Doc, the captain (Hansie) said give it (captaincy) to Pollock (Shaun). He is not going to Sri Lanka.'' That tour to India was very successful. I was in Mumbai for the first Test. Why would he (Hansie) go away from it?

Then South Africa won the Bangalore Test. I can say in hindsight that Hansie thought that the only way to get out of the clutches of the bookmakers was to get out of international cricket. That's my deduction. When he died, I phoned his mother and she said "Maybe it's better he (Hansie) is dead and that his confidence was shattered." He had erred grievously.