“They were both smokers, Adcock and Heine [Neil Adcock and Peter Heine, South Africa’s fast-bowling partnership in the 50s]. I remember them playing for Transvaal, stubbing out their fags on the rope before going in to bowl. I don’t know how they did it, but they were still as fast as Dale Steyn.”
With a chuckle Dr Ali Bacher reflects on how the game of cricket, and players, have or haven’t changed over the years.
His recall of detail is phenomenal, and his latest book, South Africa’s Greatest Bowlers – Past and Present, co-written with journalist David Williams, is filled with anecdotes and insight, as well as stats and records. It helps that, of the candidates chosen for this title – third in a trilogy after South Africa’s Greatest Batsmen, and Jacques Kallis and 12 Other Great South African All-rounders – he’s either played with or against, seen in action and, of the ones living, interviewed.
“I love the research, I go into each one like a history exam,” Bacher says.
It also helps that he and his co-author share a passion for the game, attended the same school (King Edward VII in Johannesburg) and love nothing more than to talk cricket. But why this book in particular?
“To promote greatness,” Bacher replies. In a bowler, this constitutes “achievement, commitment, fitness… temperament. Take [Australian cricketer] Steve Waugh. Ian Healy [also an Aussie cricketer] said that if you put Waugh into a charity game he was hopeless, put him into a test match, he’d perform. It’s big-match temperament.”
Yes, school and family support help, but it’s in the genes.
“Dale Steyn, for instance, never had a proper cricket upbringing. He was at high school in Tzaneen, but he had determination.” As, Bacher adds, did the legendary Makhaya Ntini. “He grew up herding cattle till his talent in village cricket was spotted.”
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Taking part in international cricket post the 1970 ban on apartheid South Africa (readmission came in 1991), Bacher was famously determined to turn things around. “It was 1986, there were killings in the townships, I really feared for the future of this country. I got some colleagues into my office, and said we got to do something. We advertised a cricket clinic in Soweto – a thousand kids came, and they kept on coming – I could see they had talent.
“I went to Lou Heilbron, MD of Bakers, who gave us biscuits, and said, ‘We got to go national, I need R1 million.’ He nearly swallowed his pipe, but he gave us half a million, later another R250 000. For 27 years, they were the most unbelievable sponsor. There was no contract, just a handshake.”
As a former South African cricket captain, captaincy scores high for Bacher. “In soccer, the captain’s not important, the manager on the bench controls the game; the same in rugby, Rassie Erasmus works out the strategy. In cricket, the captain is key; you have to make decisions on the spot.”
From an early age, he captained many school teams. “Cricket, tennis, soccer – I loved it, motivating others, helping them perform better, and getting the team to succeed.”
But for captains and players the ‘difficult game’ can be just that. “In my first test in England in 1965, I scored zero in the first innings, one in the second. We lost in two days. If you’d given me a gun,” he shakes his head.
“But on the bus on the way to the Oval in London, Colin Bland [a Zimbabwean cricketer] talked and he lifted me back up.”
The pressure may have been the same back then, but the money was different.
“In 1966-67 we beat Australia 3-1, the first time they’d lost. We each got a bonus of R75 – it covered a month’s rent on our flat.”
Bacher, whose career includes being a general practitioner, has been married to Shira Teeger since 1965. “But I’m glad I never played for the money. My life has been cricket, family, medicine for a bit – and cricket.”
South Africa’s Greatest Bowlers –Past and Present (R260) is published by Penguin Random House.