India’s first tour to SA in 1992 was a moment in history
The non-whites hoped India would vanquish SA and, in a way, avenge the injustice of the oppressive regime. This didn’t happen but the tour was significant
When India went to South Africa in 1992, the first team to visit post dismantling of apartheid, I was the team manager. The ‘Friendship Series’ was played in the backdrop of political turmoil and, from a cricket standpoint, it was a ride on an unlit highway without a google map.
First, some context. In 1992 India and SA didn’t have diplomatic relations, we didn’t recognise the FW De Klerk government and Indian passports carried a stamped warning: ‘not valid for Israel and South Africa’.
Cricket wise, South Africa was as unknown — nobody knew anything about players, pitches, conditions or grounds. Complete ignorance. Illustrated by the question asked by one player in the first team meeting: Yeh captain Kepler Wessels kaun hai?
Team meetings ahead of games were essentially casual where everybody had tea and wished each other luck. India’s first-ever tour was the equivalent of cricket played blind — classic teen patti. Pre-tour preparation was practically zero. No conditioning camp or team practice. Players gathered in Bombay a few days before departure only to collect tour clothing and pose for the customary team photo before boarding the flight. The tour agreement with South Africa wasn’t signed and I was told to settle playing conditions with Ali Bacher.
Interestingly, the Mohamad Azharuddin-led squad consisted of just 17 members — 14 players, coach Ajit Wadekar, physio-cum-trainer Ali Irani and myself as manager. No support staff and that meant Irani and I did everything — organise hotels, travel, food, handle finances and distribute daily allowance — even help out with fielding drills, throw downs and catching practise. Contrast that with today: a large squad (including net bowlers and travelling reserves) and almost 20 support staff, each specialist handling a specific role. With so many people around the team the manager is almost unemployed and redundant — his only job is to look busy and sort out match tickets for players.
The 1992 tour was marked by many firsts. When Bacher suggested using television replays to decide line calls, an innovation already trialed in domestic games, we agreed because there was no reason to object. Sachin Tendulkar became the first TV-replay victim, run out by a Jonty Rhodes direct hit. To us sitting close to the boundary, he appeared safely in: the cameras caught him just a bit short.
The Durban Test began with a brief ceremony where ICC chief Colin Cowdrey, along with captains Azhar and Wessels, released pigeons to signify peace and friendship. When play started South Africa opener Jimmy Cook was out first ball, edging Kapil paaji’s trademark out-swinger to Sachin at slip. When India batted on the juicy track the top order collapsed (4/38). Then Pravin Amre scored a gutsy hundred on debut — played cautiously in the beginning but changed gears to feast on Omar Henry’s spin to reach three figures.
Such good cricket moments were rare on the tour. India lost the Test series (0-1) and the ODIs (2-5). South Africa were the superior team with bowlers (Allan Donald and Brett Schultz), who were fit and fast and a strong batting (Wessels, Andrew Hudson, Peter Kirsten and Jonty Rhodes). Surprisingly, despite long years of political lockdown and cricket isolation, South Africa had a robust domestic system with floodlit stadiums, progressive administrators and players desperate for respect in international cricket.
India, meanwhile was turning towards a new set of players with Sachin, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath stepping into leadership roles. Among seniors, Kapil paaji’s performance fell short of his high standards but one bright spark was the astonishing century at Port Elizabeth. At one stage India was 27/5 and 31/6 but he smashed 129 in a team score of 215! Ravi Shastri was hampered by a career threatening knee injury and Sanjay Manjrekar had an ordinary tour.
The tour saw controversy when Kapil ran out Peter Kirsten at the non-striker’s end after warning him twice. The run out triggered a series of unpleasant events, with Wessels hitting Kapil on the ankle while taking a run. Match referee Clive Lloyd held an enquiry into the incident but reached a dead end because South Africa withheld television footage, key evidence, on the flimsy plea that it was inadvertently deleted due to a technical glitch. Wessels got away but everyone knew who was in the wrong.
The non-white people hoped India would vanquish South Africa and, in a way, avenge the injustice of the oppressive regime. To their disappointment this didn’t happen but the tour itself was profoundly significant as it strengthened India’s ties with South Africa, which stretched back to Mahatma Gandhi and our freedom struggle. The Indian team met Nelson Mandela and felt blessed to be in his company.
In 1992 Bacher saw cricket as an instrument for social integration and inclusivity and Indian players contributed to this vision by participating in coaching clinics in Soweto for underprivileged kids. The Indian team tour of South Africa was pathbreaking, a defining moment in history because it went beyond cricket.
India are yet to win a Test series in South Africa. Time for Rohit Sharma to correct that?
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