SA, India can now kiss and make up

In 1991, one-day international between India and South Africa in Kolkata was watched by a record crowd after Dr Ali Bacher helped to broker a thaw in relations. But the bilateral love affair was to prove short-lived. (Shaun Botterill/M&G)

In 1991, one-day international between India and South Africa in Kolkata was watched by a record crowd after Dr Ali Bacher helped to broker a thaw in relations. But the bilateral love affair was to prove short-lived. (Shaun Botterill/M&G)

A South African was the catalyst for the unrivalled riches that Indian cricket enjoys today. In November 1991, with South Africa in the throes of transition from apartheid-era indignities, a cricket team made its way to India in an aging Boeing 707 that had little to commend it other than a few crates of beer.

Once there, Dr Ali Bacher, notorious in the 1980s for organising several rebel tours but now South African cricket’s main man, met Jagmohan Dalmiya, the secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Madhavrao Scindia, a politician with the ruling Congress Party, may have been the board president but Dalmiya was the most influential of courtiers.

Bacher asked him who would be broadcasting the matches. Dalmiya’s answer shocked him. Doordarshan, the state broadcaster, had the rights and they wouldn’t pay the BCCI a penny for the privilege. Bacher wanted to ensure that the matches would be shown in South Africa and he paid the Indian board R250 000 for that.

Less than 18 months later, when England arrived in India, Dalmiya played hardball with Doordarshan and sold the TV rights to Transworld International for the princely sum of $40 000.

That was the beginning. By late 2005, when a new generation of administrators led by Lalit Modi signed a new four-year TV deal for Indian cricket, it was worth a whopping $612‑million. It was Bacher who helped to open Dalmiya’s eyes to such possibilities. Modi, who helped to consign Dalmiya to half a decade in exile, merely took things to the next level.

The story of that first South African tour was as much about politics as it was about bringing the prodigal sons back into the fold.

Until Dalmiya and Bacher broke bread in 1991, the very idea of the two nations playing each other was preposterous. Unlike England and Australia, which had played footsie with the apartheid regime until the protests grew too loud to ignore, India had always been an implacable foe.

In 1974, that country’s tennis team was happy to forfeit a Davis Cup final rather than play South Africa. It was a decision applauded at home, even as many wondered why the tennis authorities were so far behind the rest of the civilised world in taking a stand against apartheid.

When Dalmiya received a phone call from Bacher in March 1991, he thought it was a prank. Later, he told the journalist Mihir Bose: “I didn’t know you could ring India from South Africa.”

Bacher had Steve Tshwete in his corner, but the West Indies and Pakistan were still against South Africa’s admission. Also, Dalmiya needed the support of Scindia, who was constrained by his political ambitions.

On the sidelines of the International Cricket Council (ICC) meeting in London that summer, Dalmiya was on the receiving end of a tirade from the Indian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, who disapproved of him entering into discussions without getting government clearance.

But Dalmiya would not be denied. Later that week, he listened in as the high commissioner spoke to Scindia, who would later have a 15-minute chat with Tshwete as well. After all the parleys, the green light came from Narasimha Rao’s government.

The special relationship between Dalmiya and Bacher wouldn’t last. By the middle of the decade, Dalmiya’s eyes were on the post of ICC president. He let Bacher know that he wanted South Africa to be part of the Asian bloc, which was becoming increasingly influential. South Africa, though, wanted to adopt a neutral position. When Dalmiya contested the post in 1997, South Africa abstained from voting.

By the time India had threatened not to play the Centurion Test in 2001, after Mike Denness, the ICC match referee, had sanctioned half a dozen Indian players, Bacher and Dalmiya were barely on speaking terms. But an “unofficial Test” went ahead and the India-South Africa relationship was salvaged.

Things continued on an even keel for a while, even as both Bacher and Dalmiya became increasingly irrelevant in cricket administration.

But new ructions were felt soon after South African Haroon Lorgat took over as the ICC’s chief executive.

On the night of the Champions Trophy final at Centurion in 2009, I spoke to him about many of the issues the game’s administrators had to wrestle with. One of the questions was on the proposed Test championship, an idea that would end up being shelved for more than a decade even as cricket boards parroted the line about the “primacy of Test cricket”.

When asked about the difficulties involved in getting the tournament off the ground, Lorgat was extremely candid. He laid the blame squarely at the door of the rich cricket boards, specifically mentioning India and England.

Given how the ICC functions, with the influential boards having the power to shape policy, it was an extraordinarily brave statement to make.

In early 2011, one of the marquee World Cup matches was moved from Kolkata, Dalmiya’s fiefdom, to Bengaluru at the 11th hour. The ICC cited the venue’s lack of preparedness. Eden Gardens, which had hosted the final in 1987 and one of the semifinals in 1996, ended up without a single game that would quicken the pulse.

BCCI officials, although they privately agreed about the stadium not being fully ready, took it as a personal slight. What went down even less well was Lorgat’s perceived hauteur. By the time he went back to Cricket South Africa (CSA), powerful officials were waiting for a chance to get even.

It was Sachin Tendulkar who presented them with the perfect opportunity. On the tour of South Africa in 2010-2011, he had made two hundreds, including a century for the ages at Newlands, against Dale Steyn at full throttle.

But, by October 2013, six months after his 40th birthday, age and diminishing returns had caught up with him. He announced that he would retire after India’s next series and told the board that he preferred a farewell on home soil, in front of adoring fans who had serenaded him for a quarter of a century.

There was just one problem. India were scheduled to tour South Africa in December-January, an itinerary that had been agreed on in July. Almost overnight, the BCCI invited West Indies to tour and told CSA that they would only be available for a truncated series.

Tendulkar gave them the perfect excuse, but no one doubted that the move had everything to do with giving Lorgat a bloody nose.

Four years on, the relationship can only improve, especially now that Lorgat has left the building.

“There was great division created among the majority,” one South African administrator said when asked to assess Lorgat’s tenure. “Politicians, too, thought very little of him based on the demeanour he exhibited in dealings with them.”

As for India, the glee in some quarters when the T20 Global League had to be postponed for a year was palpable. There had been unhappiness again over the manner in which Lorgat went about finalising the schedule for India’s upcoming tour.

Despite staying in the same hotel as the Indian delegation during the Champions Trophy — “We would see him at breakfast,” one official told me — he didn’t come to the Indians with an itinerary until the one for Australia’s tour, which only starts in March, had been finalised.

Lorgat made several trips to India earlier this year to try to get Indian broadcasters and sponsors interested in the T20 competition. Most of them were wary, and had no desire to enter into any agreements that might incur the wrath of the BCCI, some of whose officials forget less than any pachyderm.

In that sense, Lorgat may have cost CSA far more than a lucrative Test.

More than 26 years after Dalmiya and Bacher first exchanged pleasantries, it’s now up to a new set of officials to repair a relationship that’s been fractured many times by the inability of some to see beyond their own massive egos.

​Dileep Premachandran

​Dileep Premachandran

Dileep Premachandran is a freelance cricket writer from Bengaluru Area, India who has published stories for The Guardian, The Independent and the Mail and Guardian. Read more from ​Dileep Premachandran

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