‘This is India’s Best Side Ever’: South Africa Great Ali Bacher
Ali is Indian cricket’s friend, and an example that good players can become good administrators and leave a legacy.
Sitting in a corner of the Lord’s tavern sipping black coffee, Ali Bacher looked at the television set to check South Africa’s progress and shook his head in disappointment. Then, with his typical understatement and the celebrated quality of being able to condense thoughts in just a few words, he said, “I have seen better South African sides in the past.”
One could argue against his statement, debate the comparative strengths of teams and players across eras but one has to give Ali credit for having seen a lot and travelled with SA cricket across eras and generations.
When there was political and social change in the early 90s after years of repressive policies, Ali was not a spectator but an activist who got involved to hasten the process. He shaped change in SA cricket – as a player, administrator, policy and opinion maker – in a profound manner.
Ali was, in his own words, a ‘modest cricketer’ – someone who played 15 years of first-class cricket but just 12 Tests, four of which were as captain.
This was the time when Australia was whipped 4-0, and the domination of South Africa was so complete that Graham McKenzie could get just one wicket in the series. That too when Bacher pulled a short ball but stepped on his wicket. After that series in 1970, the shutter was pulled down on his career as well as that of South Africa Test cricket, and remained shut for 22 years.
“My greatest contribution as a player,” he says in his usual self-deprecating manner, “was I kept Barry Richards out for a series! He got in later and with Graeme Pollock was the best batsman ever to play for SA.”
Apartheid may have stopped the cricketing world from celebrating Barry Richards’ wonderful skill but Ali rates Richards as a cricketer who was “as good as any that played the game.” Unable to perform on an international stage, Barry Richards took his talent to Australia and England and to Packer’s World Series Cricket. His numbers are eye-opening: 28,000 runs, 80 hundreds and a top score of 325 made in a day at Perth against an attack that included Dennis Lillee!
But Ali doesn’t moan about that sad chapter of history, about missed opportunities or wasted careers.
Ali Bacher lives in the present and is concerned more about what South African cricket is going through now.
For someone who has been so closely associated with it for so long, he can’t hide the pain as South Africa go down in England. “We are doing things wrong,” he says. Team results only mirror that failure.
South Africa Can Look to India for Inspiration
“Are selection quotas or government policies in mixed teams responsible for their performance?” I asked Ali Bacher.
“No, I don’t think that’s the case,” he replied.
“The best players are playing on merit, and it’s great for a Kagiso Rabada or Lungi Ngidi to be able to come through the system and lead the pace attack. But there is hope because it is a young, talented side which will only get better with experience.”Ali Bacher
For inspiration, South Africa have only to look at India. Ali is quick to point out that Indian cricket is doing things right – creating the right culture around the team, being professional and players demanding high standards of each other.
“This is the best Indian team I have seen in 30 years,” he says in admiration. “Earlier you had great players in Kapil Dev, Azharuddin, Ravi Shastri and of course Sachin Tendulkar, but what makes India formidable now is it has four fast bowlers. Spinners are good but they need helpful tracks to win matches – for consistent success the only formula is top quality pace.
“Indian fielding has improved and then there is Virat – that bloke is a top player, and Aussie by nature.”Ali Bacher
Ali might choose not to dwell on the past but history is part of his life, and what will define him forever is his contribution to social integration post Apartheid. Nelson Mandela famously said that sport has the power to change society, and when South Africa dismantled its abhorrent policies of racial discrimination, Ali was quick to grasp which way the ball was rolling. Becoming an instrument of change, he was at the forefront of accelerating transformation and reconciliation.
As head of a united cricket body, he batted for inclusive cricket and started programmes to support talent from all ethnic backgrounds. Ali worked untiringly to secure SA its rightful place in international cricket and constructed a healthy partnership with India. His administrative achievements peaked in organising the 2003 Cricket World Cup , famous for India’s astonishing run to the final and the drubbing handed to Pakistan in a memorable encounter at Centurion, Johannesburg.
Ali is a friend of Indian cricket, and an example that good players can become good administrators and leave a legacy. Which is perhaps why the MCC thought of honouring him by commissioning his portrait to be put up at Lord’s.
(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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