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Nelson Mandela and the cricket connection

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Nelson Mandela was one leader who realised that sport could be used to put an end to all the violence © Getty Images

 

The world faced the blow of Nelson Mandela’s demise on December 6, 2013. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man whose name will remain forever connected to cricket.

 

Congratulations had poured in from all around the world when Makhaya Ntini became the first coloured South African to play a hundred Tests. It was more than a simple landmark in the life of an extremely accomplished cricketer: it was the success of a voice to triumph over decades of sickening prejudice.

 

Of all accolades Ntini treasures the one from Nelson Mandela the most:Hearty congratulations as you play your 100th cricket Test. What you have achieved goes beyond the number of matches you played; you have demonstrated, especially to the youth of our country, that everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do. We are proud of you!”

 

Had it not been for Mandela, Clive Rice’s team might not be taking field at Eden Gardens in 1991. Even after their return, South Africa were not supposed to play the 1992 World Cup; even the schedule was drawn based on a pool of eight teams. However, when Mandela was asked on this in a press conference he replied: “Of course, we must play.”

 

The board needed no other confirmation. The International Cricket Council (ICC) was contacted, eight extra matches were scheduled for South Africa, who reached the semifinal and were cruelly eliminated by a ridiculous rain-rule.

 

South Africa went through a phenomenal ascent in cricket in the 1990s, winning the inaugural Champion’s Trophy and the gold medal in the Commonwealth Games, along with emerging as one of the leading cricket sides in the world. In 2003, a little over 12 years of their return, they hosted the cricket World Cup.

 

In other sport, South Africa lifted the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the 1996 African Cup of Nations. Never a leading side in world football, South Africa qualified for the Football World Cup and went on to host the tournament in 2010. The journey across sports had started during Mandela’s term that had taken off in 1994. “Sport has the power to change the world” was one of among his more famous quotes.

 

A lot of this had to do with Mandela’s Presidential tenure. Dave Richardson has rightly pointed out in ICC’s tribute today: “Mr Mandela never compromised his principles and his beliefs in justice and equality. As South Africa’s first black President, Mr Mandela recognised and utilised sport as a mechanism to unite the divided people of South Africa and create a shared national identity and pride. As a statesman, he was remarkable, and as a man, he was inspirational.”

 

Mandela was imprisoned at an age of 44. In his early days he went to the Old Wanderers to watch a Test: as Barry O’Brien and Mudar Patherya have mentioned in their Centerfresh Book of Cricket Lists, young Mandela had cheered every run scored against South Africa, then dominated by the curse of apartheid.

 

Of course, as has been discussed at lengths today, Mandela was an ardent fan of Don Bradman. Mandela’s respect for The Don had increased manifold when Bradman had played a crucial role in banning Australia’s tour to South Africa in 1971. “We (Australia) will not play them (South Africa) until they choose a team on a non-racist basis,” Bradman had said.

 

Malcolm Fraser, the Australian Prime Minister, was granted permission to visit Mandela at Pollsmoor Prison (in Tokai, Cape Town) during the latter’s last days of imprisonment in 1986. It was then that Mandela famously asked the question “Mr Fraser, can you tell me, is Donald Bradman still alive?”

 

Mandela had turned up at St George’s Park during the 1995-96 Test against England in complete cricket whites including the South African team blazer. Three years later he called up Lance Klusener after one of his phenomenal performances in the World Cup and congratulated him in Zulu.

 

His sheer presence brought a different aura to cricket grounds and made legends of the sport nervous: “West Indies legend Brian Lara never showed much nerves around a cricket field but he was a nervous wreck when he had a special audience with Mandela in 2005. Super cool Lara defers to few people but his recognition of Mandela’s status for their 2005 meeting in Johannesburg was obvious when he arrived in a slick black suit, perfectly shaven and looking a million dollars,” wrote The Telegraph.

 

There was a reason that Australia and England two of the three countries South Africa was allowed to play against during their pre-apartheid days (New Zealand being the other) maintained a minute’s silence before today’s play; there is a reason that the Cricket South Africa (CSA) has dedicated the ongoing series in the memory of Mandela; there was a reason that Thomas Odoyo’s nephew, a Kenyan fast bowler, was named Nelson Mandela Odhiambo.

 

He was among the men who raised cricket (and all sport) having seldom touched a bat or a ball in his lifetime. He was one of those men who realised sport could be used to put an end to all violence and discrimination.

 

Rest in peace, Mr Mandela; the world needs many, many more of you.

 

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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