When it comes to Nelson Mandela and sport in South Africa, the most common memory is his role during the 1995 World Cup. But he had profound impact on cricket in the country, too. Not only did a few simple words set the ball in notion to send South Africa to their first World Cup post-isolation, but his interest in the individuals who have represented South Africa was always genuine and heartwarming. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
When it comes to Nelson Mandela and sport, the most memorable images always relate to rugby. His time with the national team, his lifting of the trophy with South African captain Francois Pienaar, his visits to the rugby team and his captivating impact on a nation which was trying to rebuild after the devastation of Apartheid.
His impact on cricket, though, isn’t often touched on. Yet, he had a profound impact on the sport in the country, just as he did on so many other things. In the early post-isolation years, when the South African Cricket Union and the South African Cricket Board merged and formed the United Cricket Board of South Africa, the country was readmitted as an ICC member, but there wasn’t any talk of the country actually playing cricket internationally yet and there certainly wasn’t any indication of the side featuring at the World Cup.
It was August 1991 and West Indian great Clive Lloyd was visiting South Africa to promote developmental programmes. Bacher was keen to have Lloyd inspire other young black cricketers, to inspire them to achieve as black cricketers. In a country recovering from the brutality of Apartheid, it was something that was needed. Lloyd wanted to meet Mandela. Bacher phoned the late Steve Tshwete to try and set up the meeting. The next day, the pair were off to go and meet Madiba.
During the meeting at Shell House, there was a huge presence of journalists. One asked him whether South African president whether South Africa should go on and play in the World Cup. His answer was simple: Of course, we must play.
That was that. The statement made headlines across the world and soon, South Africa met with the ICC to discuss their participation in the World Cup and the next year, they returned to the global stage. Such was his poignant impact on sport. His belief in the way sport could unite people, how sport could break boundaries, how playing united for a country could profoundly impact the state of a nation.
Without Mandela, there would not have been a Hashim Amla or a Mkhaya Ntini. There would not have been a Paul Adams. Although he often joked that “perhaps it’s time to learn about cricket”, he knew just how important the sport was. He coupled that understanding with a deeply personal approach to the players. He regularly checked in with the South African team and took a personal interest in many of them. On Shaun Pollock’s wedding day, he called him to offer some pearls of wisdom and often visited the Wanderers, taking time to greet everyone from the kitchen staff to the players. His down-to-earth demeanour and passion for all humans was impeccable.
During the 2003 Cricket World Cup, held in South Africa, Mandela met with the South African cricket team before their first match against the West Indies. He gave them an inspiring speech which former South African fast bowler Allan Donald described as something which “fired up” the team. He met the teams again and personally spoke to each and every individual. Of Donald he asked: What is the Free State like?
The fast bowler was taken aback by how much Mandela knew about every individual, but it was that personal touch, for everyone which set Madiba aside from everyone else. His humility and his passion and compassion for all people, despite the injustice he suffered, is just one of the many reasons he will forever be remembered as a legend and a hero.
He exhibited that personal touch once again. Ntini, a trail-blazer who became the first black South African to play 100 Tests for South Africa, received a personal congratulation when he played his 100th Test.
A letter to Ntini read:
“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!”
It was messages like this, the encouragement and his genuine interest in fellow human beings which made him such an inspiration to sportsmen, from footballers, to rugby players and cricketers. It is because of him that, even though South African cricket still has a long way to go in terms of transformation, it has managed to take baby steps and rise to greatness. His impact on the game in South Africa was profound.
On Friday, across the world, in so many different cricket games played everywhere – from domestic games in South Africa to the Ashes in Australia, cricketers donned black armbands to commemorate a hero. Mandela once said that cricket speaks a language that transcends even politics. Mandela spoke a language that transcended even the extraordinary.
Well, played, Nelson. We raise our bats to your innings. DM
Photo: England’s James Anderson is seen wearing a black armband as the players observe a minute of silence to commemorate former South African President Nelson Mandela’s death before starting the second day’s play in their second Ashes cricket test against Australia at the Adelaide Oval December 6, 2013. South African anti-apartheid hero Mandela died aged 95 at his Johannesburg home on Thursday after a prolonged lung infection, plunging his nation and the world into mourning for a man hailed by global leaders as a moral giant. REUTERS/David Gray
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