If Ali Bacher's commitment to cricket had ended after his playing days, he would have had a proud place on the sport's roll of honour. It was Ali Bacher, the young medical doctor and Transvaal batsman - shrewd, skilful and a deft manager of men - who led South Africa to a 4-0 whitewash test series victory over Australia in the summer of 1969-1970.
They were not to know it at the time, but the international playing careers of Bacher and great cricketers like Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards and Mike Procter ended on 10 March 1970 when Bacher held a catch, offered by Alan Connolly off Pat Trimborn's bowling, to complete a 323-run win by South Africa in the fourth test at St George's Park, Port Elizabeth.
It may fairly be stated that the seeds of Ali Bacher's growth into a South African sports administrator of international stature were sown at the time of his greatest triumph as a player. The noose of censure against apartheid in sport was about to strangle South African cricket, setting in motion a chain of events which was to see the former test captain playing a prominent role in the transformation of cricket and the transition of South Africa from an apartheid state to a democratic nation.
It was to be twenty years before a South African cricket team toured abroad, and it was appropriate that Ali Bacher was again the man in charge. This time, though, he was the manager, while the team that went to India in November 1991 was captained by Clive Rice, the only player selected for a cancelled 1971-1972 tour of Australia who was still active.
The young Bacher realised that South Africa's isolation was far more than an act of malevolence by political malcontents. Through his work as a doctor at the teeming Baragwanath Hospital on the outskirts of Soweto he was made painfully aware that the South Africa in which the majority of his countrymen lived and died was a vastly different place to that inhabited by the sons and daughters of privileged white people in leafy suburbs, who had access to superb sporting facilities at institutions such as King Edward VII School, where he had been a prodigy.
The country's leading cricketers staged a protest of their own, although it was limited to the interference of the government in sport when they walked off the field at Newlands in a match at the end of the 1970-1971 season. They handed over a statement supporting the intention of the South African Cricket AssoÂ¬ciation to invite two "non-whites" to join the tour of Australia and "merit being the only criterion on the cricket field".
Bacher, ironically, was not part of the protest, spending the weekend working at Baragwanath after having used up all his leave during the cricket season. He was involved in the discussions, however, and supported the sentiments of his fellow players. The incident caused a furore, although in retrospect Bacher acknowledges that such attempts to express support for disenfranchised people were naive. "They looked good but were not meaningful," he says.
South African cricket, whose administrators largely fitted the "white liberal" stereotype, stumbled towards an equitable system for the sport in defiance of government efforts to keep sportsmen in separate racial compartments. A non-racial South African Cricket Union was established with great fanfare in 1976, but the Soweto riots the same year gave birth to Hassan Howa's rallying cry that there could be "no normal sport in an abnormal society". The SACU continued as a nominally non-racial organisation, but most black players and administrators followed Howa out of the alliance.
Bacher says he too considered himself a white liberal, but admits that it was only in 1986, with the country seemingly becoming ungovernable, that he started to understand the magnitude of the problems. Something had to be done, he decided. It was time for cricket to make a contribution to a greater society by going into the townships. It was the birth of the development programme.
By then he had given up medicine, flirted briefly with a business career, and moved into cricket administration. Chairman of the Transvaal Cricket Council from 1979 to 1981, he was to be the standard-bearer of a new era in the sport as the first full-time, professional high-level administrator. He was managing director of the TCG from 1981 to 1986, when he became the first MD of the national body. It was a time of profound change as the sport moved from being a poorly funded, largely amateur pastime to a multimillion rand business in which its leading practioners had the potential to become wealthy young men. Political changes, though, were to be the most significant of all.
In order to keep playing standards high, the SA Cricket Association staged a series of "rebel" tours between 1982 and 1990, paying top-quality players from various countries large amounts of money to visit South Africa. The last such tour, by an English team captained by Mike Gatting, took place in early 1990 against a background of political turmoil as black politicians flexed their muscles. The National Sports Congress was a thinly disguised offshoot of the banned African National Congress. The tour was targeted for massive demonstrations by the NSC.
As MD of the SACU, it was Bacher's task to organise the tour. He switched the opening match, almost at the last minute, from East London, acknowledged as an ANC hotbed, to quiet Kimberley. Even so, thousands of demonstrators chanted outside the team's hotel when the players arrived. On the first day of play, Bacher personally defused a confrontation between police and demonstrators who were marching through a white suburb to the ground where they planned to stage an illegal protest. In an act of impromptu diplomacy, Bacher personally obtained permission for a legal protest on the perimeters of the ground the following day. A crisis had been averted, but it was obvious that the cricket tour was doomed. The unbanning of the ANC was announced by FW de Klerk the following week. The tour limped on, with demonstrators far outnumbering paying spectators.
Bacher consulted with former opposition parliamentary leader Van Zyl Slabbert, who put him in touch with ANC figures, including Aziz Pahad in London. To the dismay of some senior cricket administrators, Bacher agreed, in negotiations with the NSC, whose ranks included Ngconde Balfour, the current minister of sport, to abort the tour, cutting some of the fixtures from the itinerary in return for a calling-off of demonstrations at those matches that remained.
The three-month period that followed was one of the low points of Ali Bacher's life. He admits that his confidence was shattered to the point where he did not want to receive telephone calls. Cricket, which had prided itself on its liberal values, had become arguably the most reviled sport among black politicians.
The development programme in the townships had virtually died. Once again he consulted Van Zyl Slabbert, who telephoned him at 22h30 on a Wednesday night during April or May 1990, after attending a ground-breaking meeting between the ANC and leading businessmen. Slabbert advised Bacher to meet Steve Tshwete. "Who's he?" was Bacher's immediate response. Two days later, though, Bacher was in Mdantsane township outside East London, meeting the man who was to become the first ANC minister of sport. An immediate bond was struck between the two men and they were to become close personal friends. The show was back on the road.
Tshwete facilitated meetings between the SAGU and the SA Cricket Board, headed by Krish Mackerdhuj. By the end of 1990, the two bodies had agreed to form the United Cricket Board, which was launched officially in June 1991. In the meantime, Bacher had met Thabo Mbeki, who asked Tshwete to enlist support for South Africa's admission to the International Cricket Council.
There was one piece missing in the jigsaw. South Africa returned to the ICC, but was not included in the 1992 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, for which the fixtures had already been drawn up. By now, Bacher had met Nelson Mandela. It was Mandela, unprompted by the cricket board, who told journalists that South Africa should play in the World Cup. It was a comment which went around the world and not surprisingly led to a special meeting of the ICC, in Sharjah in October 1991, which invited South Africa to participate.
Since then, cricket has had its run-ins with politicians, notably over the selection of an all-white team against the West Indies in 1998. Bacher, though, has become adept at handling crises. He believes cricket has a duty to stay ahead of the politicians by setting its own house in order and ensuring that it meets the needs of a new South Africa through its own initiative. He is proud of cricket's role in bringing people together in a changing society, but recognises that many challenges remain. His talents have been recognised by the ICC and he is head of development of the world body. In 2000 he retired as managing director of the UCB and devote his energies to organising the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. It will surely be a fitting memorial to a man whose accomplishments encompass far more than the game he loves.