Mandela, 95, was suffering from various age-related illnesses and breathed his last at his Johannesburg home on December 5, 2013. © AFP

Mandela, 95, was suffering from various age-related illnesses and breathed his last at his Johannesburg home on December 5, 2013. © AFP

MANDELA, NELSON ROLIHLAHLA, who died on December 5, aged 95, fully understood the role sport could play in the new South Africa – especially cricket and rugby, traditionally the games played and watched by whites. After the end of apartheid, South Africa returned to international competition with a one-day series in India in late 1991, the first time the countries had met. But there had been no thought that South Africa would play in the 1992 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand until the question was put to Mandela by a journalist at a meeting with Ali Bacher and the visiting Clive Lloyd. “Of course we must play,” Mandela said. And so South Africa did, reaching the semi-finals.

Mandela did not claim to be a cricket lover, but he attended some matches and met visiting teams, most famously when his helicopter landed unannounced on the outfield of the Soweto Cricket Oval, where England were playing an Invitation XI in the third match of their first post-apartheid tour, in 1995-96. Going down the line of players, he stopped at Devon Malcolm. “Ah, I know you,” he said. “You are the destroyer,” a reference to Malcolm’s nine-wicket whirlwind against South Africa at The Oval 14 months earlier.

Malcolm’s tour went downhill, with coach Ray Illingworth claiming he had found it hard to cope with the attention. Nor did the furore escape Mandela. When he made his first state visit to Britain, in July 1996, Malcolm was invited to a Downing Street lunch, with Derbyshire granting him permission to miss their NatWest Trophy match against Kent. Malcolm recalled: “When I was introduced to Mr Mandela he said, ‘Ah, Devon. If Derbyshire lose today, make sure I get the blame this time.’” They won by two wickets.

 

This article appeared in the 2014 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2014. You can buy it here.