Mohammad Azharuddin (second from left), Kepler Wessels (second from right) and Amrit Mathur (extreme right). 

The Quint’s Insider Series: When India First Toured SA in 1992

(The author, Amrit Mathur, was the manager of the Indian cricket team that toured South Africa for the first time in 1992 and also the 2003 World Cup in South Africa)

It's been 25 years since India and South Africa started playing cricket, and the current series is advertised by the broadcaster as an epic clash where India will settle past accounts and wipe out previous losses.

The message that’s being repeated loudly is that India want revenge to 'make up' for various defeats and perceived insults, including some to our cricket God Sachin Tendulkar. Of course, this is an unnecessary hype, non-serious stuff, and just a silly marketing ploy to create interest in the series.

Sports depends on rivalries and the spin masters promoting the series are busy creating the right buzz ahead of the three-match Test series, starting 5 January.

As the teams line-up in Cape Town's iconic Newlands (interestingly it is Virat vs AB, not Virat vs Faf!) to resume their rivalry, it is worth pointing out that India and South Africa share a history of cricket friendship and cooperation.

Also Read: India and South Africa Cricket – the Special Bond Over the Years

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Due to its apartheid policies, South Africa was isolated from international sports for long, as all Test playing countries snapped cricket contact with them. But after Ali Bacher created a united SA cricket body by integrating various communities, India was the first to extend a helping hand to get them back into international cricket.

The BCCI President led the process of their rehabilitation within the ICC, and a grateful South Africa reciprocated by sending its team to play one-day matches in India.

Before Clive Rice's team landed in India in 1991, much background work had to be done. The major hurdle was political, not cricket-related, and several wrinkles had to be smoothed over for cricket to start.

India and South Africa were totally opposed to each other on matters of politics and principles – to an extent that India did not recognise the Pretoria government and entertained no relations, diplomatic or otherwise, with them. The divide was so serious that ANY contact with South Africa was illegal, and passports of Indian citizens carried a stamped order that sternly disallowed travel to the nation.

To overcome these stumbling blocks, Bacher led a high level delegation to India, which included Joe Pamensky (their cricket supremo) and Krish Mackerdhuj (an influential member of Mandela’s African National Congress).

BCCI President Madhavrao Scindia put his weight behind the move to start cricket contact with South Africa, and deftly navigated the South Block political corridors to secure necessary permissions.

When the South Africans finally landed in Calcutta in a chartered flight, the reception was amazing and the one-day series set the tone for a lasting cricket partnership.

India became the first country to tour South Africa post apartheid. Mohammad Azharuddin led the Indian team on a tour that was historic and unique.

After that, in 1992, India became the first country to tour South Africa post apartheid. Mohammad Azharuddin led the Indian team on a tour that was historic and unique.

Billed as the 'Friendship Series', the cricket was historic, considering the political context of India-SA relations, the turbulence within South Africa, and the rapidly unfolding social situation in the country. In those troubled times, international cricket was staged to signal momentous change and send a strong message of reconciliation and harmony.

Azhar's team received a warm welcome in Durban, a city with the highest Indian population outside India. Seated in open cars, the team was ceremonially driven to the Elangeni – a plush hotel on the Durban sea-front, close to city centre. The significance of this gesture could hardly be missed. Barely six months earlier, this would have been unthinkable because this part of Durban was an exclusive 'whites only' area. For any person of colour setting foot here was a criminal offence punishable under law!

In this inaugural cricket contest, India was outclassed both in Tests and the one-dayers.

It was evident that South Africa cricket was in great shape despite missing out on competitive exposure. Many of its players were regulars on the county circuit and cricket infrastructure at different centres, even in lesser known centres like East London and Bloemfontein, was outstanding.

Also Read: 6 Test Series, No Wins: India’s Poor Test History in South Africa

The then South African President Nelson Mandela (C) is introduced to Mohammad Azharuddin (L) by the then Indian captain Sachin Tendulkar (R) in 1997.

From an Indian standpoint, Kapil Dev was not at his best, except for a remarkable century in the Port Elizabeth Test – he scored 129 when India was 6 down for 31 at one stage. Azhar could not find form, Ravi Shastri was troubled by a dodgy knee, and Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar had a modest tour by his lofty standards. The most striking memory for him was that he became the first batsman to be declared out by the third umpire after watching a television replay!

Among the positives, Pravin Amre scored a Test hundred on debut at Durban, and Anil Kumble finished the tour as India's number one spinner. Indian batsmen struggled to handle the raw pace of Donald, Schultz and McMillan, and in most occasions, there weren't enough runs on the board for the bowlers to fight back.

Still, this was a memorable tour, made special because the Indian team met Nelson Mandela, the towering leader who gave hope to his people, healed wounds and led an incredible process of social transformation.

The lives of professional players depend on performances on the field, but there are times, such as this momentous tour, when they realise there is more to life than sports. Its canvas and field of play extends beyond a 75-yard boundary. The 1992 tour to South Africa was a path-breaking occasion when cricket played a role beyond sports.

(Amrit Mathur is a senior journalist, former GM of the BCCI and Manager of the Indian Cricket Team. He can be reached at @AmritMathur1)

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