Inspired by Mahatma, driven by Madiba

On Friday (October 2), MS Dhoni and Faf du Plessis will lead their star-studded sides onto the field in Dharamsala. The Twenty20 International will be the first of 11 matches between India and South Africa over two months.

Or, alternatively:

“On Friday (October 2), the 136th birth anniversary of MK Gandhi, Father of the Indian nation, the Indian and South African captains will lead their star-studded sides on the field in Dharamsala, home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile. The Twenty20 International will be the first of 11 matches of the first – and epochal – Mahatma Gandhi-Nelson Mandela series, which will also involve a contest for the Freedom Trophy, between two nations whose modern democratic identities have been moulded by long-drawn civil rights and freedom struggles spearheaded by the two world leaders.”

Phew! – Forget the occasion, even simply these words are heavy with history, dripping with significance and chastening in their sheer goodnessand goodwill. The only way there could be more concentration of good in one place would be if Gandhi, Mandela and the Dalai Lama were at a tea party organised by Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King surprised them with cake.   

Funnily enough, this is a story of a kind of party – there was definitely celebration. Where Mother Teresa did make an appearance. And a dream that included little black boys and little black girls playing together came that much closer to fruition.

It is the story of all that has come before Dhoni and du Plessis, Kohli and de Villiers and Amla take the field for the cricket in 2015, and how they got there. And the place of a piddly game of bat and ball in the midst of events that changed the world.


In 1948, India was the first country to shutter its embassy in Pretoria when the National Party with its apartheid and colour discriminatory policies came to power in South Africa. Given the Indian immigrant population in the African nation and its own recent success with passive resistance and non-cooperation, newly independent India was immediately supportive of the anti-apartheid cause. 

Fast-forward to 1991. Apartheid laws had finally been relaxed, the African National Congress was no longer banned and its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, had been released after years in prison. The march to freedom, as Mandela said, was irreversible and India was as supportive in welcoming South Africa back to the international fold. Now its tool of support was something else it had become rather good at: cricket.

South Africa’s first international cricket assignment after decades in the wilderness was in India. The chartered plane that flew the team over was the first South African-registered aircraft ever to fly in Indian airspace. The Clive Rice-led side was greeted by massive crowds; Chris Gibbons, a journalist in the contingent, was quoted as saying: “I saw grown men weeping openly … Some of us were jet-lagged and hungover but none of us could not have been totally overwhelmed by the sight of tens of thousands of cheering, shouting people lining the road from the airport to the city.” 

The sense of occasion was only heightened by the team’s meeting with Mother Theresa. Rice remained especially humbled by it – the Mother’s prayer was read out at his funeral in August this year and perhaps fittingly, it is that iconic image of Rice, in his red striped T-shirt, kneeling before the diminutive nun that he is often remembered by.

It was a vociferous full house at the 90,452-strong Eden Gardens (not counting, as the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack put it, “the various officials, pressmen, policemen and peanut vendors”) welcoming them. The opposition’s calibre was an unknown – would “Kapil cook Rice for lunch”? – but for the spectators with their placards, “It’s just not cricket without the Black vote”.    

The visitors made just 177 in 47 overs, and despite Allan Donald’s five-wicket haul – three of those wickets came in his first four overs – fifties from Sachin Tendulkar and Pravin Amre took the hosts to a largely comfortable three-wicket win. It was another loss for them in Gwalior, before they made up in a high-scoring game in Delhi for their first international win. 

“Even in defeat, the South Africans were still overwhelmed by the occasion,” reported the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. According to the visiting captain: “I know how Neil Armstrong felt when he stood on the moon.” 

The teams that November did indeed take one small step for the unity of mankind; it is that legacy of change that they, now playing under the grand name of Gandhi and Mandela, have decided to carry forward.

“The revered names of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela leave us with a huge responsibility to live up to the legacies they have left us. Above all else they stood for doing the right thing and persevered at great personal cost to achieve freedom for their country regardless of how long it took them,” Chris Nenzani, CSA president, had said, announcing the decision.

All India-South Africa contests might now be named after the two legends, but as integral to their making was the work of three mere mortals: Jagmohan Dalmiya, Ali Bacher and Steve Tshwete.

When Dalmiya passed away from a heart attack earlier this month, one of the earliest and most earnest tributes to the BCCI president came from Cricket South Africa.   

“Mr Dalmiya will never be forgotten in South African cricket circles for being instrumental in welcoming us back into the international cricket fold and for extending in 1991 that historic invitation to the United Cricket Board to make possible the Proteas [sic] first ever tour abroad to India,” pointed out Haroon Lorgat, CSA chief executive.

“Not just India, South Africa too has lost a friend, philosopher and guide in Jagmohan Dalmiya,” wrote Dr Bacher, former managing director of the country’s cricket board and team manager. “We lost a great friend. One shouldn’t judge him by his contribution to Indian cricket, he was the driving force behind South African cricket as well.”

The events leading up to the 1991 tour have been well chronicled. Bacher, a former captain, had been instrumental in keeping cricket alive in South Africa through the culture and sports boycott it faced as the world, in backing the ANC, isolated a brutal regime. Rebel tours by England, West Indies, Sri Lanka and Australia had divided opinion, but none more so than the contentious 1990 English XI led by Mike Gatting. The players – who all faced international bans – and officials were met with mass demonstrations in a changing South Africa. The tour was a failure, but it was “the catalyst for real change”, said the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, bringing about the unification of a cricket board that had till then been divided along racial lines. “Suddenly, almost without realising the transition, Bacher and his colleagues were thinking as real South Africans for the first time in their lives. This was all that Tshwete and his [ANC] associates had been waiting for, and they responded with generous enthusiasm.”

Steve Tshwete was a high-ranking ANC official overseeing sports, and with his blessing, Bacher increased efforts to regain admission into the international fold. He found in Dalmiya, then the BCCI secretary, a friend. “I must have phoned him 40 times before the meeting,” said Bacher of the hectic parleys, which almost hit another wall until Tshwete allayed fears of Dalmiya and his boss in India, the late Madhavrao Scindia, that South Africa were moving “too fast” in making their case.

‘Too fast’ of course was not an issue with Dalmiya himself, for a week’s notice was all he gave Bacher when he requested the united South African side to fill in for Pakistan, on their way to the 1992 World Cup. “We were all a bit taken aback,” says Bacher in his biography by Rodney Hartman. “This wasn’t on the agenda; in fact going to the World Cup in three months’ time wasn’t even on the original agenda.” So it was that the South Africans made it to Eden Gardens in Kolkata – Dalmiya was also then president of the Cricket Association of Bengal – before travelling to Scindia’s turf in Gwalior.    

A year later, India were in South Africa for the “Friendship Series”, becoming the first non-white side to officially tour the Rainbow Nation, and were afforded a similarly ecstatic reception. And in keeping with the spirit of setting new benchmarks: this was the first series to have a third umpire.   

Dalmiya’s – and India’s – friendship with South Africa cooled over the decades that followed, the match-fixing controversy and the Mike Denness fiasco doing their bit. 

South Africa’s 2015 India tour is being called a “landmark” for it will be their longest. It is also the first time the two sides will play a T20I in India that isn’t part of a multi-nation tournament – rather unambitious ‘landmarks’ given their history of pushing the boundary rope! But from that Friendship Series to today’s Freedom Trophy, the thread of history and a shared political struggle runs strong.

India-South Africa cricket ties may not have the aggression of India-Australia ones, nor the one-upmanship of India against their old colonial masters; it definitely lacks the chest-thumping of an India-Pakistan clash. But what the two nations do have is history, and it will play out once again,  as always an invocation of the spirit of the Mahatma and Madiba.

This article first appeared in Wisden India.

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