'We had no idea how people felt about rebel cricketers in South Africa'

Ali Bacher recalls his days as an administrator in apartheid South Africa, and the time he binned a letter from Bradman

Interview by Crispin Andrews  |  

"I was only 28 when South Africa were banned. It was disappointing, of course it was, but you have to adjust" © Getty Images

Australia were the unofficial world champions in 1970, but we knew we'd beat them. In the dressing room, I told the chaps that we had to do it for all the South African sides that had been hammered by Australia down the years. Before the 1950s, South Africa never even got close to beating Australia.

Under my captaincy, Transvaal won six Currie Cups (twice as joint winners) between 1965-66 and 1972-73. There was a five-year period when Lee Irvine scored more Currie Cup runs for Transvaal than Graeme Pollock made for Eastern Province. Donald Mackay-Coghill, our left-arm quick bowler, was the top wicket-taker and should have played for South Africa. Don was particularly good when you wound him up a bit.

In December 1990, the South African Cricket Board (SACB), which represented coloured and black cricket, and the South African Cricket Union (SACU), which up to then had run first-class cricket, met in Port Elizabeth. We were looking to unite as one body to run cricket for the entire country. I'd got wind of the fact that the SACB were going to demand that issues that had nothing to do with cricket became part of the negotiations. Issues like free education and housing for the poor. I told Steve Tshwete, who was facilitating the meeting, that we had a problem. As suspected, right at the start of the meeting, they brought up these other issues. Steve stopped the meeting and said he wanted a half-hour interval. He took the South African Cricket Board into another room and when they came back, the meeting went smoothly, discussing just cricket issues. Later on, I asked him what had happened, and he said that he had told the SACB that if they messed up this unification meeting, he'd tell [Nelson] Mandela that it was their fault.

Just after England announced that they would be taking Basil D'Oliveira on their 1968-69 tour to South Africa, I was working in a township hospital, outside Johannesburg, listening to the radio. I heard South African prime minister BJ Vorster make his famous speech about this at a National Party rally in Bloemfontein. I knew right then that the England tour wouldn't take place.

Batting with Graeme Pollock you had to be alert on the fifth and sixth balls of the over, because Graeme liked to keep the strike! We didn't mind, though. He was such a dominant player.

Bacher: batsman turned doctor turned administrator

Bacher: batsman turned doctor turned administrator © Hulton Archive

After the first day's play of the first Test [against Australia in 1970], we had a team talk about how to play Johnny Gleeson. Barry Richards, who had faced him briefly, piped up and said, "Listen chaps, if you see a lot of fingers on the ball, then that's the legbreak. If you see only thumb and forefinger on the ball then that's the offbreak." And this in Richards' very first Test match. Gleeson got 19 wickets in that series - he was Australia's star bowler - but he never got Richards out once. Barry was so certain that he knew how to pick Gleeson's deliveries that he ran down the track to him and smashed him.

I was only 28 when South Africa were banned from international cricket. It was disappointing, of course it was, but you have to adjust and life moves forward. I was more upset for the likes of Barry, Lee Irvine and Mike Procter. They were young guys, phenomenal cricketers who had just made their mark on international cricket. After a few Tests - Lee had four, Barry had four, Mike had seven - I knew that their international careers were over.

I retired from first-class cricket in 1974 and was working as a medical doctor in the 1970s, when I decided to write to Don Bradman. I wanted to ask him a few questions - whether he preferred the six-ball over or the eight-ball over, what he thought of the no-ball rule change. A few weeks later, Bradman replied, a typed-out letter, about eight pages. He told me that he always replied to every letter. I read his response and I put it in the rubbish bin. Would you believe it? It wasn't that I didn't appreciate the response or disagreed with what Bradman was saying, but I had a big medical practice and there were people outside waiting to see me. I was in a rush and just didn't think. It was crazy. No, not crazy, stupid. I could kick myself.

"Australia were the unofficial world champions in 1970, but we knew we'd beat them. In the dressing room, I told the chaps that we had to do it for all the South African sides that had been hammered by Australia down the years"

I found out that I'd been chosen as captain for the 1969-70 Australia series when I was playing a club game for Balfour Park Cricket Club in Johannesburg. The late Jack Cheetham, who was the president of the South African Cricket Association back then, was at the ground, and came out onto the pitch to tell me.

I would have thought twice about organising the rebel tours if I'd known how people in South Africa felt. In the 1980s there was such a lot of media restriction in South Africa, so many government laws, that people like myself didn't know what was going on in other parts of the country. Rebel English, West Indies, Sri Lankan and Australian teams toured in the early-to-mid-'80s, but I never realised this until we had the Mike Gatting England visit in 1989-90.

In my first two Test series, South Africa beat England 1-0 and Australia 3-1. We didn't shout the odds but we knew we had a terrific team. Graeme and Peter Pollock were established world-class performers. So was Eddie Barlow. Mike Procter started in 1966-67, Barry Richards and Lee Irvine made their debuts in 1970. There were so many allrounders in that team that Procter was batting at No. 8.

You have to remember the background to South Africa's first game back after the ICC lifted the ban in 1991. India was the first country to revoke diplomatic relations with apartheid South Africa, back in 1948. Now we were in India, playing cricket, and the South African flag was flying in that country for the first time. It was mind-boggling. Over 100,000 people lined the streets in Calcutta between the airport and our hotel. Another 95,000 were packed into Eden Gardens, with another 10,000 outside, around the stadium. Jimmy Cook and Andrew Hudson went out to bat, and I remember thinking if someone bowls one on Andrew's middle stump, he's gone, no chance. The emotion, the crowds, the hysteria, it was just unbelievable.

"I saw the anger, the venom and the hatred the demonstrators had towards the [rebel England] tour" © Getty Images

By the time of the 1989-90 rebel tour, for the first time, prime minister FW de Klerk had allowed freedom of marching, provided the demonstrators informed the authorities where and when they would be marching, so the authorities could protect the local communities. For the first time I saw the anger, the venom and the hatred the demonstrators had towards the tour. I had no idea how unhappy that black people, in particular, were about "rebel" cricketers playing in our country. We had been living in a cocoon, no question about it. We had no idea how people felt.

At the 1992 World Cup, after we'd won our first game against Australia, I remember going into the Australian dressing room and speaking to Allan Border. I told Border that it was destined, somewhere up there, that South Africa would win this game. I didn't get much of a reply. Australia weren't in a jovial mood. They had just got clobbered.

I first heard about Jacques Kallis when he was about 15. I was at Melbourne when he scored his first Test hundred. It was day five, a Tuesday, and the Melbourne Cricket Ground was pretty empty. Kallis was in at No. 3 and he scored a hundred that day and saved the match for South Africa. I was quite tense and kept walking around the ground. The Australians were verbalising him. Michael Kasprowicz was trying to rattle him. Kallis had just started his Test career, and the Australians were bowling bouncers to unsettle him. Kallis just ducked, turned around and walked straight towards the square-leg umpire, and back in time for the next ball. He wouldn't make eye contact with the bowler. Another bouncer came down, more verbals, and Kallis just ignored it. Kasprowicz shouted: "Is this bloke f***ing deaf?" You could hear the expletive all around the ground. Kallis never responded. It was so good. And that was only Jacques' seventh Test.