Mumbai - The iconic Eden Gardens in Kolkata is one of the most storied cricket grounds in the world.
The Gardens, as the locals affectionately refer to it, has hosted plenty of significant matches, most notably the 1987 World Cup final, won by Australia after an ill-judged Mike Gatting reverse-sweep that led to a capitulation of the English.
And then there was “The Miracle of Kolkata” when India produced the greatest comeback of all through VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in the 2001 Test series against Australia.
Let’s not forget Carlos Braithwaite’s “Remember the name” six-hitting heroics to power West Indies to their second T20 World Cup title too.
Eden Gardens - a special place for SA
But for South Africans, the mere mention of Eden Gardens, which will host the Proteas’ Cricket World Cup semi-final against Australia on Thursday, will always warm the cockles of their hearts for it represents the rebirth of cricket in Mzansi.
For 27 years prior to that fateful day on 10 November 1991 South Africa had been the pariah of the cricket world due its horrific Apartheid policies institutionalised by the National Party.
But with the country rapidly undergoing change that led to unbanning of political parties such as the African National Congress and its incarcerated members such as Nelson Mandela, the sporting bans on South Africa were lifted and cricket was the first to benefit.
There was plenty of trepidation about South Africa heading off to India for their return to their official return to the international fold with the subcontinent nation having been one of the fiercest critics of its racial segregation policies.
But with the assistance of the late Jagmohan Dalmiya, then-BCCI secretary, and collaboration with South African chief cricket supremo Ali Bacher, a three-match ODI series was hastily arranged to be played in Kolkata, Gwalior and Delhi with the “City of Joy” showing setting the trend for the tour by enveloping the tourists with fans lining the path from the airport to the team hotel, showering flowers on the guests.
The actual match was an equally electrifying affair. Played in front of over 100 000 rousing fans - the capacity before being renovated and reduced to 70 000 for the 2011 World Cup - was a cacophony of noise with firecrackers going off virtually every ball.
“It was incredible the noise when we went out to bat. Lots of firecrackers, lots of drums, it was deafening. I was a little bit nervous. We had only played in front of 15 000 - 20 00 max before and suddenly we faced 100 000 people. The extent of the crowd and how full the stadium was just amazing,” said former Proteas opener Andrew Hudson, who walked out to an amazing ovation with opening partner Jimmy Cook.
The tourists managed to scrape together 177/8 by virtue of a half-century from Kepler Wessels, who was the only player with previous international experience after representing adopted country Australia during isolation. But it was almost enough with Allan Donald being introduced to the world with “White Lightning” furious pace hurrying up the Indian batters as the fast bowler claimed 5/30 on debut.
It took a brave knock from then-teenager Sachin Tendulkar to take the hosts home, although it could all have been different had Richard Snell not fluffed a run-out chance early on.
Hudson went on to play in South Africa’s first-ever World Cup semi-final appearance against England the following year at the Sydney Cricket Ground - a match that was marred by the rain controversy with the Proteas left needing 22 runs off one ball.
“The 1992 semi was a real pity. It was one of those games where the Gods were just against us. With television forcing the game to be finished by 10pm, so instead of getting a revised score, we just lost overs. It was so disappointing to say the least,” Hudson said.
Hudson’s involvement with the World Cup semi-finals was not over yet though. He was the convenor of selectors at the 2015 World Cup when the Proteas lost an epic encounter against the Black Caps at Eden Park.
“The team was really pumped and keen to do well with AB de Villiers as captain. The team was starting to build some energy, but we didn’t play particularly good cricket against New Zealand,” he added.
Fitness permitting another Proteas opener Temba Bavuma will lead the Proteas into battle at Eden Gardens on Thursday with the opportunity of guiding his team to a first-ever World Cup final. It will only be fitting if it is achieved at the Garden of Eden to add yet another chapter to its fabled legacy.