Dr Ali Bacher is a name that will immediately resonate with Indian cricket followers. Bacher played 12 Tests for South Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s, the last four as captain when he led his side to a 4-0 hammering of Bill Lawry’s Australia at home. The final Test in Gqeberha (then Port Elizabeth) in March 1970 was South Africa’s last international engagement before their sporting isolation; it wasn’t until the end of 1991 that they returned to the international fold, with a three-match ODI series in India.
During the period of isolation, Bacher organised ‘rebel’ tours to South Africa to ensure local cricket remained strong and vibrant, but as the winds of change swept through the country, he changed tack and played an important role in his country’s readmission by the International Cricket Council by becoming the supremo of a united board after bringing together the previously separate black and white associations. At 81, he is still a keen follower of the sport and thinks little of travelling from Johannesburg to Centurion – admittedly, only 30 minutes apart – to watch Test cricket even on damp days when a prompt start is virtually ruled out.
As Bacher sits down for a chat with Hindustan Times in the President’s Box at SuperSport Park, it’s clear that the passage of time has done little to whet his appetite for the sport. His love for all things Indian is obvious, and it’s no surprise when he reveals that of all the players he has interacted with in his second innings in cricket, the one he respects the most is Sachin Tendulkar.
“Actually, there are two,” he quickly corrects himself. “One is Sachin, we still communicate. I mean, he is a freak, he’s from a different planet. I’ve seen so many of his great innings but for me, it’s all about how he is as a person. Jeez, has he ever had an argument? I don’t think so. He’s just this greatness, this happiness, personified. You know, the Australians believe Brian Lara was better than him, I say rubbish. I say Brian Lara played before four million people. Man, this bloke had 1.4 billion people. Can you imagine the pressure of this bloke? Don’t tell me that.
“The next one I respect enormously is Steve Waugh. God — guts, determination,” Bacher gushes. “There was a time when I did a lot of TV interviews, about 70 of them. The one I wanted to interview was Steve Waugh, and he didn’t want to be interviewed. But I met him in London, and we did it. During that interview, my producer, Richard Parker, showed a clip of a Test in Trinidad. Steve went into bat I think at 12 (actually 14) for three, a green wicket. Curtly Ambrose runs up and nearly takes off his head. So, what did Steve do? He swore at him. He told me afterwards what he said to him, but I can’t repeat that here! And you see Curtly Ambrose walking to hit him and Richie Richardson stopping him. The next ball, he could have been killed, but Steve fought it out and made an unbeaten 63. He was tough mentally, Steve. He used to be a good puller and hooker before giving it up. I saw Allan Donald bowl to him once in Sydney, it’s the quickest I’ve ever seen Allan bowl. Steve was ducking and ducking and weaving but he had guts, he made a hundred. He was a better player than his (twin) brother (Mark) because he had this mental stubbornness.”
The aforementioned Donald, aka White Lightning, is among the top three South African fast bowlers of all time in Bacher’s list. “When I was 18, I played against Neil Adcock in Durban. He’s probably the fastest bowler we’ve ever had. He was very tall, very quick. In 1960, even though we lost a Test series 3-0 in England, Adcock (104 wickets in 26 Tests from 1953 to 1962) got 27 wickets in five Tests. He, Dale Steyn and Allan Donald are, in my opinion, the three best fast bowlers we’ve ever had. I’d probably put Dale Steyn at No. 1. He was quick. He bowled late away swing. He could curve it in and at five o’clock in the afternoon, he would be bowling as fast as 11 o’clock in the morning. And he had a heart like this (spreading his hands wide). You know, he came from a place called Palabora, it’s near the Kruger National Park. He went to a primary school there and we don’t know how he developed his greatness, but he did. He stayed in that area and to me, he was the best.”
Despite the heavy defeat in Centurion, Bacher rates Rohit Sharma’s current side very highly. “This is the best Indian team I’ve seen,” he insists. “In Test cricket. Before, you used to have one or two good fast bowlers and that was it — Kapil Dev and maybe (Javagal) Srinath. Now you’ve got premier fast bowlers and historically, when you got good fast bowlers, you dominate. You’ve got a dashing opening batsman as the captain. From day one, he is after you. And you’ve got (Virat) Kohli, the best batsman today. Kohli has made this team because I always felt that with India, there was no rubbish said on the field. They behaved themselves. Good boys. Not Kohli. You can see him a mile off and he reminds me of an Australian. He’s injected that fighting spirit. I’m a big admirer of his, he is the best batsman in the world today.”