“Oh, he’s a fantastic batsman,” said Dr. Ali Bacher, as Virat Kohli brought up his half-century on an enthralling opening day at The Wanderers in Johannesburg. Bacher captained Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards, and watched Sunil Gavaskar, Viv Richards, Greg Chappell and many others. He knows a thing or two about batsmanship, especially in these conditions.
On a day when many queried Kohli’s decision to bat first on a well-grassed pitch, Bacher was emphatic in his support for the decision. “Your captain has made the right call,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life here, and I can tell you that the pitch quickens up on days two and three. With rain around, and low-hanging clouds likely, India could do serious damage with the ball if they get their lengths right.”
That was exactly what happened 11 years ago, when the batsmen ground out 249 tough runs before Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan took centre stage under overcast skies. The result? South Africa skittled for just 84, with Sreesanth taking 5 for 40 in an immaculate display of upright-seam bowling.
India could have put up a similar sort of total on day one here if some of the batsmen had shown similar application. Murali Vijay fell to another awful stroke, as did Parthiv Patel and Hardik Pandya. The lower middle-order undid all the sterling work done by Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, whose 84-run stand was reminiscent of the 69 that Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid added in 2006.
But the Long Room, where I was fortunate to spend most of the day, was about far more than just the cricket being played on the field. This is where South African cricket’s movers and shakers were gathered, to discuss issues ranging from the disastrous and aborted launch of the Global Cricket League, to the transformation policies that have seen talent like Lungi Ngidi come through.
Kagiso Rabada’s father was there, chest spread with pride as his son finished the innings with 3 for 39. Ngidi’s parents, watching their son play for his country for the first time, weren’t, having failed to meet the Long Room’s stringent dress code. They enjoyed themselves regardless, with the camera panning to their celebrations and smiles of joy soon after Ngidi snagged the big fish, Kohli.
And it wasn’t just cricket either. Lucas Radebe, once of Kazier Chiefs and Leeds United, was there, talking passionately about South African football’s decline, and how it could be halted. “We started off playing on gravel [in Soweto],” he said. “What we did have was the passion, the love for the game. There’s no substitute for that.”
Fatima Habib, one of the Gauteng Cricket Board (GCB) directors, spoke eloquently about transformation, and the need for social attitudes to change. The emergence of Rabada and Ngidi has been encouraging, but in her own words, “We have so much further to go.”
Currently, each South African franchise must field a minimum of six players of colour, and at least three of them must be black Africans. Gauteng has seen an exodus of black players to other franchises, and its transformation record is now an example for others to follow. But it isn’t just on the field that change is needed. Gordon Templeton, formerly on the GCB’s board of directors, says that it needs to happen in the boardrooms and coaching positions as well.
As Graeme Pollock held court with half a dozen Indian journalists through the course of the afternoon, Habib and I spoke about Sulaiman ‘Dik’ Abed, who died in the Netherlands last week. A giant of the Coloured cricket scene in the 1960s, Abed was also a legend in league cricket circles in England. But because of apartheid, he never even got to play a first-class game in his homeland.
Countless books and articles have been written about the ‘tragic’ manner in which the careers of Pollock and Richards were cut short by South Africa being banned from the international arena. But these are men with an identity, individuals whose feats will never be forgotten as long as the game is played. For those like Abed, who weren’t even allowed on the fringes, there is no such immortality. That is the real tragedy.