My most vivid memories of South Africa predate India’s first cricket tour there in 1992-93, though cricket was still the reason for the visit. In mid-1991 came the unification of the country’s two rival cricket boards, for which some journalists from India had been invited to accompany Sunil Gavaskar, one of the guests for this historic occasion.

South Africa then was a country in the throes of massive churn. Apartheid, the most horrific expression of political and social racism, had finally been dismantled. The blacks and coloured were now part of mainstream life, and sport could hardly be far behind.

Cricket had willy-nilly become a central issue in the fight against apartheid. South Africa had been ostracized from the sport following the refusal of the government to allow “Cape coloured" Basil D’Oliveira to tour with the England team in 1968-69, and this had ramifications well beyond the playing field. More than two decades later, with a new political dispensation led by the African National Congress (ANC) poised for power, it seemed mot juste that two of the guests would be a black West Indian, Garfield Sobers, and a brown Indian, Gavaskar.

The highlight of my visit was a breakfast visit to Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto along with Gavaskar and a few others. Even at 7am, Mandela was alert and chirpy, his charisma oozing through clearly as he answered and asked sundry questions. Cricket was not a game he played or followed (football and boxing were his pursuits), but he knew enough about Gavaskar to keep the meeting way above the mundane. By the end, the two were exchanging gifts: Gavaskar gave him an autographed bat, Mandela returned the compliment with his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

Behind these formalities, Mandela’s political savvy was evident because the ANC was seeking political ties with New Delhi. As president of the party then (he became head of the country later), he was also inspired by Mahatma Gandhi in his 27-year-long incarceration, so the political affiliation found moral acceptance too. Inevitably, India was to become the most important ally in the future of South African cricket—its first match after readmission to the International Cricket Council (ICC) was at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, in late 1991. Less than two years later, Mohammad Azharuddin’s side became the first to tour the “Rainbow nation". It was appropriately termed the “Friendship Series", though South Africa played hard and tough to win it convincingly.

It seems a travesty that cricket relations between the two countries have hit a trough these days. The whys and wherefores of the controversy before the recent tour was cleared remain mired in some mystery, but clearly there is a trust deficit somewhere. Critics of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) have been quick to assign the problem to its door but I believe there are more dimensions to it than popular perception suggests. Several former South African players, including Clive Rice, have put the blame squarely on their own board.

For lovers of Test cricket, it is a matter of dismay that India will play only two Tests in South Africa—the first Test is on 18 December. Such a short series—a regular affair nowadays—belittles the five-day format instead of providing the fillip it needs.

A contest between the top teams (South Africa are ranked No.1 and India No.2 in Tests by the ICC. In One Day Internationals, or ODIs, the rankings are reversed) demands an itinerary that allows players better scope to express their talent. While three ODIs is fair for a short tour, a two-Test series becomes seriously limiting—for fans and players alike.

From a diehard’s point of view, the fact that the tour has not been scuttled is a matter of solace. What now remains is how the two teams play, given the pressures that will have piled up in the past few weeks, for cricketing and other reasons. This tour is of greater significance to the Indian team than the South African. Sourav Ganguly quit five years ago, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman last year, and last month, Sachin Tendulkar made his emotional exit. An era which made excellence a byword in Indian cricket, is over. The makeover is complete.

M.S. Dhoni leads a young side brimming with talent, but untested in overseas conditions. This tour is the first of a few to be played overseas in the next 12 months. What happens here could determine whether the future of Indian cricket is as rosy as it looks now. The challenges ahead are severe. Tackling Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel on bouncy pitches and keeping Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, A.B. de Villiers and Hashim Amla in check with an untested attack seems daunting. But that’s where attitude and mental strength becomes as crucial as aptitude.

India have never won a series in South Africa. Many believe not losing would be a victory of sorts. But a win would make India No.1 in Tests and ODIs. That’s worth straining every ounce of talent, energy and commitment for.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters

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