I fear the future of Test cricket – Dr. Ali Bacher



Rex Clementine reporting from Centurion

If the enigmatic Jonty Rhodes remained the face of South African cricket up on their re-admission to international cricket, Dr. Ali Bacher was the backbone of it for a much longer period. While his leadership skills in the 1970s saw South Africa challenging the world’s best, his administrative capabilities kept the game alive in South Africa during the apartheid period. He was the head of South African cricket up on their re-admission to world cricket and forced other cricket nations to notice in awe South Africa’s excellent structure that was as good as Australia’s and better than that of England.

The 2003 World Cup that South Africa co-hosted with Zimbabwe and Kenya is considered the best World Cup to date and the driving force behind the event was Dr. Bacher, who was the Tournament Director of the event.

Dr. Bacher captained South Africa in 1970 and probably inherited the greatest side to play Test cricket for that country when he had the luxury of leading the likes of Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow, Mike Procter, Peter and Graham Pollock against Bill LawryAustralians in a four-Test series and thrashed them 4-0. Sadly, that happened to be South Africa’s last series for 21 years due to apartheid.

Having brought ‘rebel teams’ including one from Sri Lanka to keep the game alive in South Africa, Dr. Bacher also experimented novel features to promote the game. After re-admission to international cricket, he served as the Managing Director of United Cricket Board of South Africa before stepping down in 2001 to concentrate on staging the World Cup.

In this candid interview with ‘Sunday Island,’ the former South African great speaks on a variety of issues ranging from Nelson Mandela to Hansie Cronje, thrashing Bill Lawry’s side in 1970, threats faced by Test cricket and how the IPL money could ruin young players, his memories on Sri Lankan cricket and, of course, Birmingham 1999!

Here are the excerpts:

Question: Tell us about your feelings when you were kept out of cricket for over two decades soon after whitewashing what probably was considered the toughest side in the world at that moment?

Dr. Bacher: It was very difficult. In 1970, we had a very powerful team and we beat Australia 4-0. We had at that point some of the greatest cricketers the world has ever seen. Graeme Pollock, Mike Procter, Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow and I could go on and on. It happened and it was right. Apartheid was evil to human dignity and that had to go. The world community in order to try and bring sanity to the South African white government at that time isolated South Africa, culturally, economically and when it came to sports as well. We were isolated for 21 years and it had to happen. Sadly in the 1970s and ’80s, we continued to produce some great cricketers who never played Test cricket. Clive Rice and Vintcent van der Bijl. Thank God, in 1991 there was the unbanning of African National Congress. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and we started to play international cricket again.

Question: Your memories of Mr. Mandela?

Dr. Bacher: Certainly we owe a lot to Nelson Mandela. I had the privilege of meeting him quite often in the 1990s and he is the most extraordinary person, an icon in this country. His capacity to forgive his oppressors, not just forget, is extraordinary. That kind of attitude and philosophy encouraged the African National Congress to make sure that in 1994, when we had democracy in this country for the first time, we entered an era of reconciliation initiated by this extraordinary man Mandela.

Question: It’s said that the South African side you led in 1970 was the best produced by the country. Your comments?

Dr. Bacher: That would be highly probable. It was a formidable team and we had some superb all-rounders and that made the side a very strong one. I can recall in the second innings of the third Test at Wanderers against Bill Lawry’s side, we had Mike Procter batting at number eight. Trevor Goddard, one of our best all-rounders, batted at number nine. That was an indication of our depth in batting.

Question: When South Africa were denied international cricket, did you actually think it will resume sooner rather than 21 years later?

Dr. Bacher: No. I took a viewpoint that apartheid was here for the rest of my life and I was wrong. But I knew in late 1970s, that unless apartheid went that we would never play international cricket again.

Question: You were the mastermind of those ‘Rebel Tours’. Talk us about them?

Dr. Bacher: Well, it was a long time ago. That was a controversial period in the history of South Africa cricket and the country. In retrospect, had I known more about the politics of the day, I would have thought twice about those tours? But having said that for the minority of white cricketers, it gave them some international flavour. When we returned legitimately, our cricket had some depth and we did well in the 1992 World Cup reaching the semi-finals.

Question: Even a Sri Lankan team toured South Africa for a ‘Rebel Tour’. Do you remember much about that?

Dr. Bacher: The Sri Lankan team was outclassed and they were not a formidable team and in essence, it was one way traffic.

Question: What made the Proteas such a strong outfit when they returned to international cricket in the 1992 World Cup?

Dr. Bacher: Two reasons. Although we were isolated internationally, a lot of our cricketers went to the United Kingdom and played county cricket and had lot of experience against top class cricketers. People like Clive Rice, Jimmy Cook, Peter Kirsten and others. They had some degree of international competition although it was county level. Secondly, because of isolation, we became pretty marketing oriented. When you are isolated, you need to become very inventive and innovative to make sure the game still has a place. Our standard of cricket was pretty high in the 1980s and for the first time in world cricket, we introduced domestic day-night cricket which was very successful and gave our future players some sort of experience. Some of the games of the 1992 World Cup were day-night games as well.

Question: What did you do to keep the game alive during the period of isolation?

Dr. Bacher: In the 80s and 90s there was a big drive to take the game to all parts of the country and particularly to the disadvantaged areas in the black townships and it was through that drive that someone like Makaya Ntini was unearthed. That ultimately became a huge market for South African cricket whereas when I played for South Africa, international competition was limited to a minority, the white people of this country.

Question: At least on three occasions South Africa were considered favourites to win the World Cup, but they never even made it to the final. Of all the World Cup disappointments, what hurts you most?

Dr. Bacher. What else, 1999. I was there in Birmingham. What a day that was and I will never forget that day. We were tied with Australia but they went through on a technicality. We should have never lost that game. Last over Lance Klusener and Alan Donald, oh no…. I will never forget. Dreadful, dreadful scenes!

Question: What would you say are the challenges world cricket is facing at the moment?

Dr. Bacher: Twenty-20 is a problem. What will happen to Test cricket in ten years’ time is a question. Will it have the support of the broader public I am not too sure? I think the administrators need to be very careful in handling Future Tour Programmes. T-20 cricket is here to stay, but don’t have too much of it. It will take away the importance of Test cricket. Test cricket should be the epitome of what cricket should be about.

Question: Is IPL a threat to world cricket?

Dr. Bacher: IPL as such no, but too much of it will cause a problem for world cricket. Not only the actual format of the game, but actual monetary aspect. I think more players out of the sub-continent will be attracted to India because of the money. The responsibility of playing for the country could become a problem. In addition, I am very happy that the seniors and the best players of the world earn lot of money. What I have seen is that a lot of young players and inexperienced players are earning good money and I don’t think it’s good for their future development.

Question: Match fixing involving your former captain Hansie Cronje, how big a setback was that?

Dr. Bacher: It was a crisis for world cricket. If you look at the history of world cricket, there was the bodyline series, then the Packer revolution and the next biggest crisis was match corruption which started in South Africa sadly with Hansie Cronje.

Question: Many believe that the 2003 World Cup where you were the head of the organising committee is the best produced in cricket so far. When you look back at that competition, how does it feel?

Dr. Bacher: I get enormous satisfaction. I left the South African Cricket Board from the normal day today running. I put aside two and half years of my life purely on the World Cup. I said to myself every day, beyond this World Cup, I don’t want to wake up one day and say, why didn’t I do A, B or C. So I pushed myself. I can honestly say that everything I tried, we did.

Question: Recently three Pakistani players were sentenced for jail terms for their involvement in the spot fixing scandal. Your thoughts on it?

Dr. Bacher: Match-fixing is non-negotiable. Three players were found guilty and they got the sentence they deserved and I am sure it has sent a very stern signal around the world of cricket. Everyone should keep the game clean. It’s an extraordinary game and it has survived many decades.

Question: How has been your relationship with Sri Lankan cricket?

Dr. Bacher: I remember coming to Colombo in early 1990s and majority of your players were short chaps. De Silva, Arjuna and all. But looking at the Sri Lankan team today, of the eleven guys eight are tall players. They can be rugby forwards. I am trying to work out how this could have happened?

Then, Dhammika Ranatunga was the CEO of Sri Lankan Cricket in the 1990s and we developed a very close relationship. In fact, in world cricket my two best friends were Majeed Kahn from Pakistan and Dhammika from Sri Lanka. I remember Dhammika came to South Africa in 1996 to talk on cricket. He was here for two weeks. He became very close to my family and my family became very close to him. We used to run every morning and I used to talk cricket. I parted whatever the knowledge I had acquired over the years. He listened and we became wonderful friends. In fact when he left South Africa, there was tears on his eyes and there was tears on my family. They loved him. He was such a warm and loving person. It’s with regret that I learned that he had to migrate to the United States because of his child. He is a wonderful man that I have come across.

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