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Ali Bacher: The man for all seasons

Ali Bacher: The man for all seasons

It was an important day for Shira Teeger, the first time her boyfriend and family would meet each other. A genteel tea had been prepared at their home in Johannesburg and everything proceeded smoothly until her beau arrived and promptly started knocking in a new bat. Amidst the thuds of leather ball cannoning into virgin willow the Teeger family must have agreed with Shira’s assessment that Ali Bacher was “a bit odd”.

Such behaviour was usual for Bacher, who caught the cricket bug early. His family were surprising cricket converts. Ali’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, who moved to a new life in Johannesburg, and raised three sons who loved the game. His mother, eager to learn the sport herself, bought a copy of Donald Bradman’s The Art of Cricket. She read it first, underlined the parts she considered important and then handed it over to Ali, who practised Bradman’s shots in front of a mirror.

Bacher enrolled at King Edward VII School, a nursery for many future South African internationals. By the age of fifteen he was in the first XI and playing league cricket against sides often featuring provincial players. He went on to play for South Africa Schools for three seasons, alongside Peter and Graeme Pollock. With a closed left-hand grip, learned straight from the pages of The Art of Cricket, he was even compared by some over enthusiastic commentators with the great Don himself.

Cricket could only be a hobby rather than a career when Bacher left school in 1959. His father demanded that he enter a respectable profession and given the choice of doctor, lawyer or accountant, Bacher headed to medical school. In the battle between batting and books it was his degree that usually suffered. He quickly became a regular in the Transvaal side and captained his club side. It would take him eight years to complete the six-year medical course, an achievement only made possible by studying for long hours through the night.

Bacher prospered in the Currie Cup despite his strange grip and a fondness for the leg side. He had long been marked as a potential leader and ascended to the captaincy of Transvaal when only 21 years old and the youngest player in the side. Any rumblings among the senior players were soon dispelled, and his captaincy proved agile with sensitive man-management. His inclusion in the party to tour England in 1965 was, though, still a surprise. Despite it being the first time he had left his homeland, Bacher adapted quickly and forced his way into the test team, where he contributed two half-centuries to South Africa’s surprising series victory. Denis Compton summed up his batting in the Sunday Express: “He is a rather strange looking player with a number of unorthodox shots in his repertoire. Yet since arriving in this country he has learned fast the most effective way to play on our wickets.”

With this international experience, Bacher grew into a leading figure in domestic cricket. Although his home series against Australia 1966/67 was mediocre, with an average of 30.5, Bacher scored 235 for Transvaal in their match against the tourists. Richie Benaud, who covered the match as a journalist, wrote, “I am more and more impressed with Bacher every time I see him, he has that priceless gift of good temperament and though not stylish to watch, he is devilishly hard to dismiss.” It is a fair summary of Bacher as a mature batsman. Long gone were any comparisons with Bradman but he was an effective, pugnacious batsman capable of occupying the crease for long periods of time.

Hindsight makes these series seem like preparation for the demolition of the Australians in 1969/70. Peter van der Merwe had retired as skipper and Bacher had beaten his rival, the ebullient Eddie Barlow, to the job. He led a team on the tantalising verge of greatness, with the experience of Barlow and the Pollocks alongside the emerging talent of Mike Procter and Barry Richards.

The Australians, who had just left India following an exhausting tour, were only in South Africa because their series in Pakistan had been cancelled. They were no match for Bacher’s men. In the first test Barlow demonstrated his loyalty with a fine century and then Peter Pollock, Mike Procter and the spinner Graham Chevalier swept through the Australians to bring victory. The second test was won by an innings and 129 runs on the foundation of 140 from Richards and a scintillating 274 from Graeme Pollock. The third test was won in similarly convincing fashion, with Pollock and Procter destroying poor Australian batting.

The final test proved to be the swansong of South African cricket for a generation. It was a beautiful serenade. Richards, only 24 years old, stroked more than 200 runs in the match. Lee Irvine, whose test career spanned that series, was dropped three times but still achieved his maiden century. Denis Lindsay, the wicketkeeper, smacked John Gleason for five successive boundaries. Procter’s bustling pace ripped through the ailing Australians, with nine wickets in the match.

It was a triumph for South Africa and its captain. Ironically his contribution with the bat was mediocre, with 217 runs in seven innings. He would never go on to make a test century. A test match average in the early 30s allied with a first class mark just under 40 probably accurately reflect his ability: a good player and an astute captain at the helm of an exceptional team.

And then it was all over. The 1970 tour of England was cancelled by the MCC, and it soon became clear that there would be no more international cricket for the foreseeable future. Bacher retired, and spent several years as a doctor and in the pharmaceutical industry. In 1981 he returned to cricket, first as the director of cricket for the Transvaal Cricket Council and then as its managing director.

This was a first for cricket in South Africa, and began its professionalization. Bacher was responsible for all aspects of Transvaal cricket, both on and off the field. He introduced sponsorship, season tickets, player contracts and Sunday one-day matches (in the process bypassing a law banning such activities on the Lord’s day). No longer would a talented cricketer be forced to navigate, like Bacher, the dual loyalties of cricket and a career.

Under Bacher’s oversight Transvaal became the dominant side in the country. They employed the first foreign player, Alvin Kallicharan (their first choice was Imran Khan), and attracted the likes of Graeme Pollock away from other provinces. Not surprisingly this “mean machine”, as Transvaal came to be known, created bitterness and jealousy from rival teams as they won the Currie Cup five times in six years.

As the most successful administrator in domestic cricket Bacher became increasingly active at the national level. He became one of the group that went to London every year to lobby the International Cricket Council for readmission. Listening to the polite rebuffs it became clear to Bacher that the front door to international cricket was locked and bolted.

The original idea for a back door alternative came from an unlikely source. Peter Cooke was an English music executive and friend of Geoffrey Boycott, and in the spring of 1982 recruited English players for a trip to South Africa. Originally intended, in the players’ minds at least, to be a quiet, private tour, the ruptures caused by apartheid throughout the game meant that it was always likely to be controversial and volatile.

The rebel players, whose number included Graham Gooch, Geoff Boycott, John Emburey and Derek Underwood, were subject to opprobrium at home but were welcomed with open arms by South Africa’s cricket establishment. Bacher was appointed as chair of the selection panel, and appointed Procter as captain. With sponsorship from South African Breweries this international cricket, even without official imprimatur, appeared to offer an alternative version, or perhaps just an alternate reality.

Despite relatively poor crowds at many of the matches, the English rebels created the model for future series. Bacher and his colleagues on the South African Cricket Union (SACU) thought that matches featuring the best black cricketers in the world would stimulate interest in the townships. Bacher said that his “abiding hope was that they would be an inspiration to our young, black cricketers.” This view reflects the bubble inhabited by white cricket at the time. Mark Henning, a former chair of the SACU, described the problem when he said that their critics “were part of a bigger struggle, we were simply running cricket. What we lacked was a powerful liberal voice to say ‘listen chaps, you’re not thinking this through properly.’ We were good guys, we had respect for human dignity, but…”

In Bacher’s sights were the all-conquering West Indians. First came a facile tour by a group of Sri Lankans, several of whom were little better than club players, and were hammered amidst indifference from black and white South Africans alike. But Bacher’s eyes were set on grander sights. While on a trip to the ICC in London in 1982 he managed to persuade Colin Croft and Sylvester Clarke to join his ranks. A series of protracted phone negotiations secured the rest of the players for a West Indian side, with Lawrence Rowe the most eye-catching name.

If the English rebels considered themselves unfairly criticized and punished, with a three-year ban, the West Indians felt the full wrath of the Caribbean. Clive Lloyd called the tour “an affront to the black man throughout the world.” Michael Holding said of his former colleagues, “if they were offered enough money they would probably agree to wear chains.” The governments of the region condemned the players in vociferous tones, and the West Indies Cricket Board imposed a life ban (which was lifted in 1989).

The absurdity of a West Indian side in apartheid South Africa was exposed when a train conductor ordered Colin Croft out of a whites-only carriage. But Bacher persisted in pursuing more rebel tours, with another West Indian side the next year and two Australian tours led by Kim Hughes in 1985/6 and 1986/7. The motivation of the players was simple. When Tony Opatha, the player/coach of the Sri Lankan team, asked for $30,000 per player Bacher told him “you are in cuckoo land.” Opatha replied succinctly, “how many cuckoos in the dollar.” Graham Dilley, who went on the second English tour, wrote “I don’t really see any moral problems” and that Bacher would “make the money right to compensate us for ending our test careers.”

If the tours were a simple financial transaction for most of the rebel players the stakes were more complicated for Bacher and South African cricket. Although the cricketing establishment in the country was broadly against the National Party and its policies, it became increasingly clear that the tours were utilised as propaganda by the government. Their very existence undermined the goal of activists, both at home and abroad, to isolate South African sport. It was revealed that the government, without parliament’s approval, offered the tours’ sponsors a 90% tax rebate. The sham that this was cricket without politics was shown to be illusionary, and SACU, with Bacher as its totemic figure, were portrayed as sell-outs and government stooges.

The final rebel tour in 1990, led by Mike Gatting, was organized and played in a country poised on the precipice of civil war. In the midst of this violence the new president, F.W. De Klerk, announced Nelson Mandela’s release and allowed peaceful protests dependent on a license from a magistrate. However the subjugated majority had little respect for the pleasantries of a legal system they viewed as illegitimate.

A large protest had been planned for the first match in Kimberley, without the requisite license. The board could have asked the police to disperse the demonstrators but Geoff Dakin, president of SACU at the time, said “morally, I could not go along with that”, and Bacher told the media that he respected the right to peaceful protest. During the match Bacher was alerted that the situation was at risk of becoming violent; he went to the demonstration and repeated his statement about peaceful assembly to the police and to the protestors. If there was a moment when the scales fell from Ali Bacher’s eyes it was then, as the police officers ignored his pleas and used their weapons on the crowd. Eventually Bacher located a police commander and between them they cajoled, negotiated and persuaded the authorities to issue the license.

Bacher’s actions probably saved lives on that hot summer’s day in Kimberley and it also won him some grudging respect from his opponents. With Mandela’s release imminent, and the ANC anxious to avoid unnecessary tensions, SACU agreed to cancel the scheduled second leg of the tour.

Bacher now understood that South African cricket needed, morally and politically, to be inclusive. However he was, in the words of one liberation activist, “the architect of all the efforts to undermine our campaign to totally isolate South African sport.” He began building relationships in the township of Alexandria. Where his previous outreach had been solely a SACU initiative, now Bacher understood the importance of demonstrating good faith by working with other groups. As he slowly gained the trust of the people who used to loathe him, Bacher learnt the realities of his nation for the first time and apologized for the Gatting tour.

By 1990 attention turned to a united cricket administration. On one side was SACU, with their history of breaking the campaign for isolation. On the other was the South African Cricket Board. Hardline even by the standards of liberation politics, the group had ousted their leader, Hassan Howa when word leaked that he had met with Bacher.

The ANC wanted the two groups united despite, or perhaps because, of their differences. Under the guidance of Steve Tswete, a former Robben Island prisoner and future minister of sport, it took only three meetings to achieve the goal. Tswete’s standing in the liberation movement, allied with the power of the ANC, ensured a speedy process that was respected by both sides. Bacher was elected as managing director of the new board, appropriately named the United Cricket Board (UCB). Armed with a letter from Thabo Mbeki, and the ANC’s resources at their disposal, the doors to international cricket were suddenly sprung open. Less than two years after the dark days of the Gatting tour South Africa played India, the first time the two sides had met each other.

If the path to readmission was an inspirational tale of reconciliation the years after were full of complications and controversies. Bacher’s decade at the helm of the UCB was beset with tensions over quotas and the lack of emerging black players, the hideous unveiling of Hansie Cronje as a match-fixer and the fallout of the King Commission. This all take place as the UCB, and the nation, struggled to deal with its legacy of inequality.

Bacher stepped down from the UCB in 2001 to focus solely on the 2003 World Cup. This should have been the crowning achievement for post-reconciliation South African cricket: a celebration of the country in all its diversity. Under Bacher’s guidance the tournament posted a sizeable profit with a focus on black empowerment from the top to bottom. The competition was, through, flaccid with far too many matches played over an interminable six weeks. There were political controversies, including England’s refusal to play in Zimbabwe and New Zealand’s no-show in Kenya. The tournament was also commercialized to such an extent that spectators could not bring Coca Cola drinks because of laws against ambush marketing. In delivering their profit, Bacher and the ICC had stripped the World Cup of any local flavour.

Ali Bacher is a remarkably adaptable man. The agility he first demonstrated as a captain allowed him to envisage a series of rebel tours outside the mainstream of international cricket. But only when confronted with the terrible truth in the sweltering heat of Kimberley did Bacher understand that sport was not enough of itself. He helped bring the game out of its cocoon of white cricket to embrace and advance, however imperfectly, a unified sport representative of the rainbow nation.

Further Reading
Ali: The Life of Ali Bacher by Rodney Hartman
The Rebel Tours by Peter May


Very interesting piece, David.

Comment by chasingthedon | 12:00am GMT 5 February 2013

Nice piece David.

The South African cricket administrators were stuck between a rock and a hard place in the 1980s. As you say, they were broadly against the NP and its apartheid policies, there was a real fear that cricket would die in the country if there was no international competition.

Like all men, Bacher had his faults, but on balance he did more good than bad.

Comment by Marius | 12:00am GMT 7 February 2013

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