Kolkata: Former India opener Arun Lal, described as “my inspiration” by Sourav Ganguly, has revealed that an attempt was made in the latter half of the 1980s to organise a rebel tour of South Africa by a cricket XI from India.
South Africa was then boycotted by almost the entire international community for its racial segregation policy of Apartheid.
Lal’s startling revelation, in an interview to ThePrint after being bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ganguly-headed Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) Saturday, has taken the lid off what had been a secret.
South Africa then had two cricket boards, one run by the Whites and the other by the Blacks. Unless an independent operator was at play, it’s assumed the rebel tour must have been mapped out by the board run by the Whites.
Given the sensitive nature of the seven rebel tours which took place, with the cricketers banned by their home boards, nobody will ever acknowledge that one involving players from India had actually been planned.
Unification of the two boards in South Africa took place in June 1991, just weeks before South Africa’s readmission to the International Cricket Council (ICC).
It’s interesting that South Africa’s comeback series was in India, in November 1991, when the Clive Rice-captained squad featured in three ODIs. Led by Mohammed Azharuddin, India won 2-1, with the series attracting global coverage.
Excerpts from the interview with Lal, an alumni of St Columba’s, Mayo and St Stephen’s:
To start with something you’ve never talked about… Who approached you to undertake a rebel tour of South Africa?
(Pauses) A former India cricketer. I won’t identify him, so please don’t insist.
When was the approach made?
In the latter part of the 1980s, when I was still playing for India… The deal, obviously on behalf of key figures in South Africa, was for three years and I would have been paid between $ 250,000-$400,000 for each year… I could have had a dual passport, South Africa’s and, I think, that of the US… I was also assured of employment commensurate with my qualifications (Masters in Economics from Delhi University).
Why did you turn down the offer? I recall Clive Lloyd mocking Alvin Kallicharran with the ‘honorary White’ label, after he became one of the rebels…
Because I didn’t want to end up being a man without his own country… I take pride in being an Indian and I just couldn’t, indirectly, endorse the actions of a repressive and regressive regime in South Africa… I’m an honourable Indian, why become an honorary White, to quote what you’ve said? Besides not letting down my family, friends and the cricket fraternity at home, I couldn’t let down the campaign against Apartheid led by the God-like Nelson Mandela… Mandela, like Mahatma Gandhi, remains much more than an inspirational figure and both have rewritten history. Gandhi and Mandela have fashioned mankind’s thinking.
Who else was approached?
I wasn’t told and I didn’t ask… All I know is that an Indian XI was planned. That it didn’t
go beyond the planning stage suggests others also turned down the deal.
Was the deal offered afresh at a later stage, before South Africa’s readmission to the ICC, in July 1991?
To talk of the present…You’ve been honoured by the CAB… Does the award make you feel like an elder statesman?
It feels good and I’m indeed thankful to the CAB. Ideally, however, such awards should be given posthumously… I don’t feel like a 64-year-old, for the old 44 is now 64. Let’s say I’m in the middle-age stage and still have lots to do… Travel, give more time to issues of the environment, wildlife and help Bengal win trophies in cricket. I hope to make an impact like Virat Kohli has.
In what way?
I don’t admire Kohli only for the way he captains or bats for India, I admire him for being the transformational person he has become. Kohli has redefined work ethic, redefined determination… Redefined what fitness is all about… India loves him… As mentor-cum-coach of Bengal, I’d like to impact like Kohli has. Look, I’m not done just because I have this Lifetime Achievement Award.
Since you’ve mentioned Bengal, why has the state not won the Ranji Trophy after 1989-1990, when you were playing?
I was doing commentary for almost two decades and, so, disconnected with cricket in Bengal. From what I’ve made out, the cricketers haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t regularly put in the hard yards, haven’t exactly been hungry… The talent is there, but the cricketers have lacked belief, which comes from within… The rest of India has moved on, not Bengal. I’m hoping to bring about some change, but no change is overnight.
You played for India in the 1980s. What’s the biggest change now?
It’s an amazing change. Now, Kohli and the rest play to win, they have the belief that they can beat any opposition. Obviously, that won’t always happen. This present India team is arguably the fittest in the world, where did we have this level of fitness?
But, in the 1980s, the India teams surely had more skill and the Sunil Gavaskars and the Kapil Devs were playing, the former till 1987-1988…
I accept that, but we didn’t believe we could win. Under Dev, India did win the 1983 World Cup, but it was cricket’s biggest upset.
Maybe physios and trainers would have helped your generation. Your take?
My view is rather different… In one way, physios actually make you weak. Now, if there’s a side strain, the physio makes you undergo an MRI and, if it’s a Grade X tear, you’re possibly out for six weeks. We didn’t have MRIs and, for a similar problem, probably take only three weeks to be back in action.
Cricket-wise, best moment?
Many… When I made my India debut (Chepauk Test, against Sri Lanka, in 1982-1983), when Bengal won the Ranji Trophy after decades… The 164 not out for Delhi University against Osmania University in a final of the Rohintan Baria Trophy… Eighty of those runs were in a partnership of 84 for the last wicket with Sunil Valson.
When I lost my father (Jagdish Lal, a first-class cricketer) in 1997… If I had a hero, he’s the one.
Anybody who inspired you?
You’ve known me for decades, I’ve never needed to be inspired. However, I’ve been fascinated by certain performances in the arena of sport and bowled over by authors like Ayn Rand. I haven’t read a better book than The Fountainhead and I must have presented copies to 100 people.
Which performances have fascinated you?
An act of extraordinary sportsmanship by Germany’s Luz Long in the 1936 Olympics, when Adolf Hitler was in the audience… The US’ Harrison Dillard in the 1948 and in the 1952 Olympics… Great sportsmen and great human beings… Dillard passed away last year, aged 95… Long, of course, died much earlier (in 1943, during World War II).
(Laughs) None… Even if there have been, don’t have the time or inclination to remember them!
None. I’m the positive type, cannot have regrets.
A cricketer you’ve admired?
Virender Sehwag. Sehwag has captained India a few times, but I’d say he’s the best full-time captain India never had… Selfless, positive, what a mindset! In my book, Sehwag is on one page, the rest of the cricketers on another. He came from another planet, not from ours. I have enormous respect for Sehwag.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India is in a mess and has been so since January 2017, when president Anurag Thakur and secretary Ajay Shirke were removed by the Supreme Court. As a former India cricketer, what do you have to say?
Let me be honest… There’s been so much of litigation and I’m not familiar with everything that has transpired… However, it’s dragged on for far too long and all parties have to take the blame. One way or the other, resolution is required.
You were involved with two failed attempts to get a cricketers’ association going, in 1990 and in 2002. Were you left frustrated?
Left disappointed… But if Dev and the others couldn’t get it going the first time and Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Ganguly and Rahul Dravid the second time, then they’re the ones who should feel more disappointed. I don’t hold anything against anybody, so don’t get me wrong.
An association has, according to a recommendation of the Justice RM Lodha Committee, been registered…
You need vision for any association to succeed… Require a vision for any objective to be realised.
Back in the 1990s, you’d worked together with Lalit Modi and some others on a 50-over IPL. Will you elaborate?
The franchisee model was the same as the IPL, which took off in 2008, only major difference being it was in the 50-over format. The board, however, scuttled it arguing that the 50-over Deodhar Trophy already existed. The model put in place was presented to the board in 1997-1998. The T20 format came later.
Like Yuvraj Singh, you’ve beaten cancer. He did it at the age of 30, you did it at 60. What would you like to tell those who face similar setbacks in life, hopefully for no more than a short period?
I’ll give my example… I didn’t look at cancer in the jaw as an illness, I saw it as a temporary problem, because being positive is in my DNA. So, please be positive and don’t let any setback hit you like a tornado… I endured pain in plenty, couldn’t walk for two months post the 13-hour surgery… Thirty sessions of radiation were hard to endure, as were the side-effects. But, here I am, talking to you… People say I came back from the dead… While I may not be that religious a person, God is certainly there, but don’t take life for granted.
Over the years, you’ve done philanthropic work in plenty, yet don’t talk about any of the good deeds. Why?
Because it’s a deeply personal thing. Philanthropy is to engaged in, not made into headlines for mileage. I won’t take names, but I’ve funded the education of top-notch doctors some of whom are currently working in AIIMS, New Delhi. My (adopted) son, Bikash, has fared so well in life. I can’t explain how proud I am of all those who’ve smashed the odds with, perhaps, some help from me.
Finally… You’ve lived life on your terms, at times even deviating from what is seen as the conventional script… Indeed, you have packed in plenty…
(Emotionally) You only live once, why live it on somebody else’s terms? It’s important to have the belief, it’s as important to stand by your beliefs… I’ve never had set goals. It’s just that, along this journey, things have fallen in place… I wake up with a smile, to the sounds of the birds and bees in my house. I’m a contended person. As I’ve said, no regrets… I’m a Punjabi, married to a Bengali and have a son who is a Bihari… That is enough for an introduction, I guess!
Lokendra Pratap Sahi is a veteran sports journalist who has covered cricket across the globe for nearly four decades.