There is a cricket World Cup now in South Africa, and watching the tournament on TV shall doubtless take me back to the one time I did visit the country. That was back in October 1997. Apartheid had recently been vanquished, and the greatest man the world has known since Mahatma Gandhi was in power. The country itself was something like India in 1947, full of hope and foreboding. A righteous political struggle had been rewarded with victory, but the rebels–turned–governors had now to contend with a deeply divided and fearfully violent society.
Nowhere do the residues of history lie so thick and bloody on the ground as in South Africa. In the ten days I was there I did not have the heart to talk or think cricket. I went to Lord’s the first week I was in London, to the Melbourne Cricket Ground immediately after checking into my hotel. But since South African cricket had, over the years, partaken so fully of the crimes of apartheid, it was impossible for me to visit Wanderers or Newland, although I spent time in the cities in which they are located.

If I thought of cricket at all on that trip, it was of the discrimination that black cricketers had once been subject to. I remembered the story of Basil D’Olivera, born in Cape Town, but because of the colour of his skin not allowed to take part in first–class cricket at home. He knew, however, that he had the talent to play at the highest level. Encouraged by an Indian friend, ‘Dolly’ wrote to John Arlott asking him to recommend him to a league club in England. (Arlott, by the way, was almost unique within the English cricket establishment in being an opponent of apartheid. When he visited South Africa in 1948–9, and was made to fill in the noxious immigration form, against the category ‘race’ he simply wrote ‘human.’) Arlott got him an initial assignment with a league club in Lancashire, and Dolly’s game quickly took him further up the ladder. He first played for England in 1966. Two years later he was selected for the M. C. C. tour of South Africa. But the racists would not have him, and cancelled the tour.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack lists Basil D’Olivera as being of Worcestershire and England. His original cricketing affiliation, however, was to St. Augustine’s Cricket Club in Cape Town. The club was started in 1899 by Reverend Lewis, a parish priest at St. Paul’s Church in Bree Street, who thought that sport would serve to keep ‘idle youth’ out of trouble. Dolly learnt his early cricket at the Green Point Common, right under Table Mountain. In the mid fifties, however, the Cape Coloured were displaced from the city under the notorious Group Areas Act. The community took the St. Augustine’s Cricket Club with them. As described so vividly in D’Olivera’s autobiography, the coloured cricketers had now now to make do with bumpy wickets, carved out of rough ground on the city’s outskirts. Dolly went on to England to make his name, but years later another Augustinian, Paul Adams, became the first Cape Coloured to play Test cricket for his native land.

My adult consciousness would dwell on the case of Basil D’Olivera. But when I was a boy I probably didn’t think of it much. In any case, it didn’t stop me from admiring white South African cricketers. The Government of India considered the apartheid regime to be the embodiment of evil, but it could scarcely disallow the entry of cricket books published in England. These told me stories of the Rowan brothers, of the Nourses, father and son, of the googly bowlers of the early decades of the century (Vogler, Schwarz, Faulkner), and of Jack Cheetham’s fine team of the fifties, the quality of whose fielding put into the shade their own talented batsmen (McGlew and Mclean) and bowlers (Adcock, Heine, and most of all, Tayfield).

But of course for an Indian of my generation it was the South African side of 1969–70 that one knew, or knew of, best. It was all–white, true, but it was also the best side in the world. They thrashed Bill Lawry’s Australians four-nil, this just after the Aussies had comprehensively beaten India. In the summer of 1970 the South African tour of England was cancelled, and the apartheid regime finally banned by the International Cricket Council. Ali Bacher’s great side would play no more Test cricket. Meanwhile, Indian cricket underwent a surprising transformation, and in 1971 successively beat West Indies and England, each time playing away from home.

After these victories the Indian captain, Ajit Wadekar, expressed regret that his side could not play the South Africans for the title of ‘world champions’. We knew this to be bravado, a challenge thrown in the safe knowledge that it could not, in the prevailing political climate, ever be accepted. For how would our bowlers bowl to Barry Richards or Eddie Barlow or Grahame Pollock? Or our batsmen face up to the pace and bounce of Mike Procter and Peter Pollock?
Some answers were provided twenty years later, when India finally did play South Africa. They came here in 1991 to contest three one–dayers, and made a tremendous impression with their fielding. In the first match in Bombay Jonty Rhodes effected two run–outs and took three catches, one of which was taken at full stretch, body at least four feet off the ground. We had read of Colin Bland, the South African who once ran out an English batsman by throwing a ball between his pads to hit the stumps. But Rhodes appeared akin to one of those characters out of Hindu mythology, taking off in the air to do battle with someone a million miles away. As for the other members of the team, we noticed that a few could bat straight, and one, Allan Donald, could bowl very fast indeed.

The next winter India went to South Africa for a full tour. Ajit Wadekar was the manager of the Indian side, and I wonder whether he ever recalled the challenge he had once offered. India were beaten easily in both varieties of the game. The South African side of the 1990s seemed more akin to the side of the 1950s than the 1970s. One outstanding bowler (now Donald, then Tayfield), some useful back–ups, four or five passable batsmen, ten or eleven exceptional fielders.

In the decade since they re-entered international cricket South Africa have produced perhaps three world-class cricketers: Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, and Jacques Kallis. By contrast, the side of the 1970s was staggeringly talented. There were four all-rounders of close to world-class: Procter, Barlow, Trevor Goddard and Denis Lindsay (a stumper with a huge appetite for runs). Add to them a fast and hostile new ball bowler, Peter Pollock, and two of the greatest batsmen in the history of the game. These were Barry Richards, who was good enough to be chosen in Don Bradman’s all-time eleven, and Graeme Pollock. The last named remains my favourite South African cricketer. All I have seen of him is fifteen minutes of film. Five would have convinced me of his genius. He was a big man, yet stroked the ball with an almost feline grace. He looked somewhat like a right–handed Zaheer Abbas, only better and much more at ease against pace.

Despite my politics, I am almost sorry that I could not see this South African side play against India in the seventies. I cannot however believe that dear old Ajit Wadekar has, on this score, any regrets at all.