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Cricket safari in the UAE

October 13, 2013

It is a beautiful country, South Africa, and if you haven’t seen it by road you have missed an entire era of civilisation. It is a dangerous country mind you. My host would call ahead to his home when he left office with me during a trip there and the electronic gates were timed to open just as the front bumper made the turn toward them. If the car didn’t enter fast enough there was a danger they would hit its rear bumper as they were designed to close as quickly as they opened. This wasn’t the case everywhere but in Johannesburg yes, electronic gates and security were as much in demand as flights out of Islamabad on the last day before Eid.

If you haven’t taken the train from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, known as the Garden Route, they say you haven’t seen the most fairytale-like countryside of all. Yet it has been a nation fraught with some of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind: Apartheid.

It is the escape from this monstrosity that has made the South African cricket team a much different side to watch. It has changed completely in character than when it first appeared; there was an aggression that was like that of a lion freed after days of hunger. Bowler after bowler led by Alan Donald would get into your soul and shake it up. Those guys looked as mean and menacing as the neighborhood gangs in downtown Los Angeles.

It has completely mellowed down by my reckoning. Perhaps the infusion of non-whites and more moderate whites has taken away that authoritarian spirit. The team till the late 1990s was almost all white, with Hershel Gibbs categorised as a coloured cricketer rather than Black. In the times of Apartheid, Whites were the only people who had freedom and lived in luxury. A non-White couldn’t lay foot in the area where Whites resided unless he was employed as a servant. And then he had to leave the area before sundown. Or he could be hunted down and shot.

The next category was that of the coloureds, who had at least a white father; as having a black father and white mother was quite unimaginable then. They had some of the privileges of the whites but only when necessary. Then ranked the Asians, who were almost all from the Indian subcontinent, and were brought in to work on the plantations and railways. Last were the Blacks, the original residents since thousands of years. They lived in the worst conditions possible, in colonies of shanty huts far away from the urban delights of the Whites.

Other than one Charles Bennett (Buck) Llewellyn, who was sporadically selected to play for the South African side over a hundred years ago (some said it was a political statement being made), no coloured cricketer could play for the national side, let alone an Asian or Black. The non-Whites in fact were never allowed to watch cricket in the stadium. A South African once told me that once during a Test match a special concession was granted. The non-White spectators could come in and watch the cricket standing up only, caged in by bars all around.

South Africa had been ostracised from international cricket after their proposed tour of England was called off fearing that the Commonwealth Games in July would be boycotted by Asian and African nations. England, which had a growing Asian and Black population and continuous immigration from the commonwealth countries, and needed their markets, decided that they wouldn’t play cricket as long as the Apartheid policy was in effect. Australia and New Zealand followed suit. It was business as usual in trade and logistics among the White countries of course. They had to have their diamonds and gold.

I have recounted this because an entire generation here has no idea what the non-Whites have suffered and what they have broken through to see such players playing for the national team. There is now a minimum limit of four to five non-Whites comprising the match XI. They should understand what struggle men like Hershell Gibbs, Makhaya Ntini and Hashim Amla have had to endure to play like they do. Before the ’90s non-Whites could not play quality cricket because they couldn’t afford the paraphernalia and the standard of pitch needed. You can imagine the fast track to skill the earlier cricketers like Adams and Ntini had to make to break through once it was mandated that at least one player in the 11 would be non-White.

It is a credit to the white cricketers currently in the team and in their domestic circuit that they have gelled so well; and the past hatred and feeling of superiority is no more, at least in their actions. However, it has also made them a softer side even though Steyn’s stare keeps the flame going.

Commonalities and controversies

South Africa is possibly the only country against which Pakistan has won more Tests on their home grounds than it has in Pakistan, and each time after losing the toss; once when sent in and twice when asked to field first. That number of away wins to home is 2-1. Quite a pleasing and amazing stat that, considering the continuous strength of the South African side ever since it came out of the wilderness and back into international cricket in 1992. The mauling earlier this year is fresh in mind, but they had eight Test wins against us before that compared to our three; better selection and we could have actually won a Test on the recent tour.

Pakistan’s history of cricketing contests with South Africa is quite interesting, and not just because these are the only two countries where their most high-profiled cricketers have been convicted of match or spot fixing. The late Hansie Cronje was the one who officially brought that shame on to this gentleman’s game, after a hue of innuendos had plagued the game ever since the unsigned statements in 1995 by the hypocritical Australians, Warne and Waugh, that they had offered money to play badly. For a long time Gibbs couldn’t set foot in India despite him and another lesser known bowler serving temporary bans, due to their implication along with Cronje.

South Africa have since become as much known as the centre of match fixing as is India. By all counts it still goes on, though in the last few years it has been Pakistani cricketers caught in the act.

Once the cover was blown off Cronje many revelations came to light. It seemed that South Africans were arguably the most corrupt cricketers going around, even though they would rationalise a few of their thoughts. On a tour of India before the one in which Cronje was caught through a wiretap not intended for him, he had actually discussed throwing a one-off ODI in a specially called team meeting on the eve of the match against hosts India. After a long tour in which they had lost the Test series 2-1, the team would get some good money. The decision to throw the game or play fair was actually debated for a very long time that evening. Some of the big names were actually tempted by it; others like Andrew Hudson and Daryll Cullinan walked out of the room in disgust at the very proposition. The team didn’t go for it eventually but the fact that the bookie was informed at 3am in the morning suggested how long it must have been debated.

It was in South Africa again that Rashid Latif and Aamer Sohail plus a few others had a tiff with Salim Malik as to why he had opted to field first in a day-night game on a pitch that would play better during the afternoon. The situation got almost out of hand and someone asked for a copy of the Quran to be brought out for every player to put his hand on and swear that no match fixing had been done. One or two of the suspects had conveniently disappeared from the room by then. Pakistan lost that ODI and the seeds had been sown for the action that would follow after that in Zimbabwe when Rashid Latif announced his retirement in disgust.

A friend told me that he had been sitting with a cricketer who narrated the story that during a tour a lot of noise was going on outside in the corridor late into the night. He stepped out to see hot words being exchanged by some of the players from both sides. It appeared that both had played to lose the match, said that cricketer! I never believed it at the time but the cricketer never took any names so it couldn’t be personally motivated.

Cricketing highlights between the two

For some reason playing against South Africa had always spelled acrimony within the side. It was against South Africa that one of the worst splits occurred in the Pakistani side. It must be a world record in Test cricket, if not in all international cricket providing it has never happened anywhere in cricket, that Pakistan have had nine captains against South Africa in 21 Tests spread over 20 years. Of them Misbah has captained five and Inzamam four; both of whom captained the side within the last 10 years. That makes it seven captains in 12 Tests. Take out Saeed Anwar’s three Tests when he was captain in a series, and you have six chappies — Salim Malik, Aamer Sohail, Rashid Latif, Waqar Younis, Mohammad Yousuf (then Youhanna) and Shoaib Malik leading in the other nine. The only ones to have tasted success have been Aamer Sohail, Yousuf and Inzamam. Misbah has lost most, though all three defeats came earlier this winter with a fragile batting side.

To come back to the split, it was on the 1998 tour to South Africa. Majid Khan, then CEO of the Pakistan Cricket Board, had kicked out Wasim Akram from the side and asked Rashid Latif to captain. Pakistan won the second Test at Durban in exciting circumstances after the first was ruined by rain, though not before Azhar Mahmood had struck the second of his three consecutive Test hundreds against South Africa.

Vice captain Aamer Sohail had led the Pakistan team in the first two Tests as Rashid Latif had to sit out both due to a badly sprained neck. Now came the third Test and Rashid was told by the Chairman PCB, Khalid Mahmood, that Wasim Akram, who was reportedly not fully fit, would be flying in from London and that he should be selected to play the third Test. When Rashid contacted Majid he expressly forbade it. The choice split the team with some saying Wasim should play and some totally against it because they had gelled together as a side. Eventually Wasim played, some of the players stayed annoyed and Pakistan lost badly as Rashid returned to captain the side though not fully recovered. Rashid temporarily opted out of cricket after that, and Wasim returned to lead Pakistan again.

But perhaps the worst incident to embarrass the Pakistan side when playing against South Africa came when two cricketers, one of them quite the living legend, returned to the hotel in the night and complained of having been roughed up by muggers outside the team hotel. They appeared a bit bruised as well and all of the Pakistani players stated that they would not play the next Test starting in a day’s time until the muggers were caught. In fact the first day was pushed ahead to the next, as the protest continued.

The senior player played the Test but though he did well he did not play the one after that. By that time, after both the players had refused to sign sworn statements of the incident, Ali Bacher, head of South African cricket was puzzled because the location the players indicated showed nothing of the sort in the CCTV footage. Eventually stories came through that they had in fact been thrown out of a nightclub by a couple of bouncers and having to explain the injury that would keep them out of the Test made up the story that wouldn’t get them fined.

The story was never officially clarified but it was said the omission was a result of disciplinary action after leading Ali Bacher to write an apology on the day after the incident.

So what is it that the coming series between the two might throw up off the field? I doubt anything unless someone escapes to London in mysterious circumstances. UAE is a highly policed state and though there are revelries going on well into the night, the players know their limits. This is also a very well-behaved Pakistani side since some time and as I said before, the South Africans have mellowed down from their days of rancor. Hopefully, the only news consistently coming through will be focused on the battle of the Pakistani spinners against Smith, Amla and Co. Frankly that is all that a cricket lover from both countries is now interested in.

The writer is a business consultant and a former CEO and board member. He is an author and cricket writer by choice for over 30 years and has served as editor of the Asian edition of The Cricketer International, UK.