In 1990, shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, it had become clear to some of us that the path to democracy had been laid and it was imminent that a united cricket board would present a South African team to the world. The African National Congress, the liberation movement that won the first election in 1994, supported us and I had made contact with Steve Tshwete, the future sports minister, about the way forward. We became good friends as the UCB began to plot South Africa’s path back under the guidance of the ANC.
My first step was to phone David Richards, the Australian [Cricket Board] CEO, and I asked if Australia would propose South Africa’s readmission at the ICC’s meeting in 1991. To his credit, David came back to me and said he was close to Jagmohan Dalmiya, the honorary secretary of the BCCI, and I should speak to him directly. I had never spoken to Dalmiya before but I phoned him.
In the early part of 1991, we must have spoken 25 times and we had developed a good relationship. He had received support in the BCCI to propose South Africa’s return at the scheduled June meeting.
When our South African delegation got to London, the day before the meeting, Dalmiya phoned me and informed me that there was a serious problem and that India’s Congress party was not happy for the BCCI to propose us at the meeting. I asked Dalmiya if we could speak to the president of the BCCI and we immediately phoned Madhavrao Scindia in Delhi.
Tshwete was with our delegation in London and I introduced him to Scindia. Tshwete spoke to Scindia for 15 minutes, put the phone down, put his arm around me and said, ‘Ali, don’t worry, they will propose you’, and it was forthcoming.
At that meeting we were accepted back into international cricket. We weren’t looking for an immediate return to the playing field, we just wanted to be part of the big family.
When we returned to South Africa, we decided our leading administrators – Geoff Dakien, Krish Mackerdhuj, Percy Sonn and myself – would travel to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to meet their administrators for the first time. In October, our delegation went first to Sri Lanka and then on to India. At Mumbai airport, we were met by a huge delegation of journalists who informed us that Pakistan had withdrawn from their proposed tour of India in two weeks’ time.
We then flew to Kolkata and Dalmiya hosted us. He treated us as though we were royalty. He rolled out the red carpet and held functions for us, including one at this own home. He took us to meet Jyoti Basu, the chief minister of West Bengal, and at that meeting Dalmiya intimated he wanted South Africa to replace Pakistan on their imminent scheduled tour of India. He saw a unique opportunity to get South Africa into India for the first time and I could see he wouldn’t let go. He was on a mission.
After that, we went to Delhi. That was Scindia territory. Scindia sent a representative to meet us at the airport and his representative’s first words to me was, “Dr. Bacher, can I suggest that you play down Mr. Dalmiya in Delhi?” We could see the divisions in Indian cricket.
On the way back to South Africa, we stopped over in Nairobi. I shared a room with the late Percy Sonn. He said we were going too fast. I phoned Tshwete in South Africa and explained that our delegation was anxious of accepting the invitation to tour the country within a week. I gave the phone to Percy, he had a long discussion with Steve, and that was it – we were on our way to India.
We were in Kolkata for the first game and I asked Dalmiya who would be televising the games. He advised me it was the state broadcaster, Doordashan, and that the BCCI would receive no payment. I then offered him a quarter of a million rand to ensure the games would be broadcast in South Africa for this historic tour.
Dalmiya’s eyes lit up and he saw for the first time the possible financial television fees. That was the start of Dalmiya in the 1990s using the cricket market extensively to accrue huge television and sponsorship income for the benefit of Indian cricket. That is his legacy.
In 1996, the ICC made a decision to provide its own constitution that would ensure member countries would appoint within the organisation the president from within the member countries. Surprisingly, Dalmiya was not the president of the BCCI but he was their candidate for the ICC presidency. The other candidate was Malcolm Gray from Australia. It became an acrimonious contest and on the advice of Krish Mackerdhuj, us and Zimbabwe abstained from the vote. Consequently there was no outright winner.
The Australian delegation did not take warmly to our abstaining. However, history will recall it was the right decision because tempers cooled down. Dalmiya thanked us for the way we handled it. Twelve months later, by agreement of all the members including Australia, Dalmiya became the first president and his successor was Gray.
I was very close to him in the early 1990s. I never met anybody who was so persistent in getting other administrators to support his point of view. He was a smart businessman and he was the start of creating an India as the financial powerhouse of world cricket it is now. He never understood the word no. He was the ultimate Bengal tiger.
Ali Bacher, a former South Africa captain, was the managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa in the 1990s. He spoke to ESPNcricinfo’s Firdose Moonda