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Remembering Nelson Mandela's contribution to cricket

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Nelson_Mandela_South_Africa_Cricket“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. ”

 – Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

July 18 marked the birth centenary of Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest icons modern history has known. ‘Madiba’ left behind an illuminating legacy, built with the tenets of humanity, equality, justice and non-violence during an amazing lifetime which changed the face of South Africa, a nation stagnated and suppressed by the repulsive Apartheid system for many decades.

Naturally, Mandela’s impact was bound to be felt on sport as well. One of the most special moments in sporting history took place in June 1995, when ‘Madiba’ presented the Rugby World Cup trophy to Springboks captain Francois Pienaar after the home side defeated New Zealand in the final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. Then the President of South Africa, Mandela, wearing a Springbok rugby shirt and cap, proved that sport is indeed powerful in breaking racial barriers.

Likewise, Mandela had an equally significant role to play in the emergence of cricket as a means of spreading peace and unity in South Africa. He was known to be a keen follower of the game - he famously asked Malcolm Fraser whether Don Bradman was still alive when the former Australian Prime Minister visited him in prison in 1986. Bradman was instrumental in cancelling Australia’s tour of South Africa in 1971, which had won him Mandela’s respect and admiration.

 

Mandela had once revealed that he and his fellow non-whites used to support visiting teams in South Africa. “I watched a Test at Durban. We black people were not allowed to sit with the public. Instead, we were put in a barbed-wire cage. South Africa was winning and we black people were sad. But then came an Australian batsman who hit a century to win the match for Australia and we went home singing”, he recalled after being released from prison in 1991.

 

Nevertheless, South African cricket was grateful to Mandela when it was yearning for an international return. Isolated since 1970 due to the shameful policies of the Apartheid regime, South Africa’s cricket fraternity had suffered a lot. South Africa eventually ended their exile with an ODI series in India in November 1991. However, they were not part of the initial schedule for the 1992 World Cup, to be held in Australia and New Zealand three months later.

A single comment from Mandela changed that, thus paving the way for the South Africans’ late entry into the tournament. According to Dr. Ali Bacher, the former captain and administrator who played a key role in bringing South Africa back into the international fold, a journalist once asked Mandela, after a meeting he had with Bacher and Clive Lloyd, of his views on whether South Africa should play in the World Cup. "Of course, we must play", replied the great man.

Word was spread by Sri Lanka Cricket President Tyronne Fernando, who heard the comment, and the various cricket boards agreed by majority that South Africa should be brought in as the ninth team in the 1992 World Cup. The Proteas went on to reach the semi-finals before England edged them out in a controversial rain-hit game at Sydney. A month after the World Cup, South Africa played their first Test after readmission, fittingly against the West Indies at Bridgetown.

 

Gerald Majola, former CEO of Cricket South Africa (earlier United Cricket Board), has credited Mandela for being a catalyst in the game’s revival. “It was his endorsement of the unity process and the formation of the UCB that showed the world South Africa was now acceptable following the apartheid years”, he once recalled. Indeed, it was Mandela’s influence that made the likes of India, Pakistan, and the West Indies agree to the UCB’s admission as a member of the ICC.

 

Mandela also ensured that he was publicly present when India toured South Africa in the 1992-93 season, in what came to be known as the path-breaking ‘Friendship Tour’. Majola added that he turned up at India’s warm-up match at the Oppenheimer Oval in Midrand, while on his way to Pretoria to register the African National Congress as a party to contest the elections. An amateur boxer himself, Mandela was well aware of the colossal power of sport to bring people together.

As it happened, South Africa’s first home series since readmission resulted in an instant success for them on the field as well. The Proteas defeated India 1-0 in the four-Test series and 5-2 in the seven-match ODI series. The tour is also remembered for the introduction of the ICC panel of independent umpires and the decision of the UCB to make use of television replays to settle borderline decisions, an innovation that ultimately led to the arrival of the third umpire.

In the first Test at Durban, the South African eleven included a non-white - 40 year-old Omar Henry - for the very first time, and it ushered the start of a new era in the country’s cricketing set-up. A few years later, in 1997-98, Makhaya Ntini became the first black player to represent South Africa. Ntini, who was a goatherd in the small village of Mdingi as a young boy, went on to play 101 Tests, took 390 wickets and is regarded as one of the best fast bowlers of the 2000s.

 

Mandela sent Ntini a letter on the occasion of his 100th Test, against England at Centurion in 2009-10: “Hearty congratulations as you play your 100th cricket Test. What you have achieved goes beyond the number of matches you played; you have demonstrated, especially to the youth of our country, that everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do. We are proud of you!”

 

During England’s tour in 1995-96, Mandela delighted all and sundry by appearing in full cricketing attire - long whites, cream shirt and a Proteas cricket blazer - at St. George's Park in Port Elizabeth. The days of rooting for the visiting team were over, and Mandela’s philosophy was now embedded in South African society. When South Africa hosted the World Cup for the first time in 2003, he came to a press conference wearing the green Proteas jersey.

As fate would have it, Mandela breathed his last while an ODI between South Africa and India was being played at the Wanderers. It is only apt that his name, along with that of his idol Mahatma Gandhi, has been given to the Test series contested between India and South Africa for the Freedom Trophy. A little more than a week ago, Les Bleus showed the strength of unity in diversity by winning the FIFA World Cup. Mandela would have been immensely proud of such a triumph.

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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