India vs South Africa has been one of the regular fixtures in the international calendar every year for almost 30 years now. The two teams play each other in all three formats and have regular bilateral contests in South Africa and India. South African players are among the most popular participants in the IPL and attract high figures in the auctions as some of them are among the biggest superstars in the game.

With this background it is difficult to believe sometimes that South Africa did not play India for over 100 years after playing their first Test in 1888 and India did not play South Africa for almost 60 years since playing their first Test in 1932. The policy of apartheid followed by the South African government meant that their cricketers could not play against India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and West Indies even as they had regular contests at home and away with England, Australia and New Zealand.

All that changed on one historic day at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta on November 10 1991 when Clive Rice and Md Azharuddin went out for the toss in the first ever ODI between the two countries. South Africa in fact had been excommunicated from international cricket for over 20 years. They had last played a Test against Australia at Port Elizabeth in March 1970 before hardened international opinion against apartheid saw them ostracized. It took more than 20 years for the policy to be dismantled and the cricketing community eagerly waited for South Africa to make a comeback to the international game.

But against which country would they play their first historic match on their return? It was largely felt that it would be in the fitness of things if they played against India and Dr Ali Bacher who played a major and longstanding role as the architect of change within South African cricket was also of this view. It only needed some prompting from Jagmohan Dalmiya at the time a key figure in Indian cricket and following events that moved at a dizzy pace it was decided that South Africa would visit India for a series of three ODIs just before the Indian team left for Australia during the 1991-92 season.

No other Indian city would have matched Calcutta in according an enthusiastic reception to the visitors. The turnout of cheering thousands along the route of the motorcade paled in comparison to the sell out crowd that assembled at the Eden Gardens to solemnize the coming of the New South Africa to international cricket. It was largely estimated to be a world record crowd for an ODI making it a truly historic occasion to which the cricket followers of Calcutta had contributed so handsomely.

The emotions were unbelievable. Tears were copiously shed most of all by Bacher who had a particular reason to feel overwhelmed. ''This is a historic moment. It is the greatest day of my life’’ he said repeatedly overcome by the occasion and the reception.

Given the nature of the reception and the occasion it was perhaps not surprising that South Africa capitulated in the first match going down by three wickets. But international cricket got its first view of the bowler who was to be South Africa’s first great player since readmission. Allan Donald ran through the Indian batting line-up and had he got better support from the batsmen he could well have won the game for South Africa. Donald took five of the seven wickets for just 29 runs the forerunner of several such impressive performances that was to make him an outstanding fast bowler over the next decade.

India wrapped up the series winning the next game at Gwalior by 38 runs but it was clear that the South Africans were slowly mastering the alien conditions and the very special occasion. They cantered home by seven wickets in the final ODI at New Delhi. But the 2-1 result in India’s favour was secondary. The historic occasion over rode everything else. The visitors were feted with ornate receptions and public appearances and the spirit of solidarity was intact at the end with the sharing of the man of the series between Sanjay Manjrekar and Kepler Wessels. Finally when it all ended after a short but hectic tour the South Africans left with phrases like ''I am in love with India’’, ''a fantastic experience’’ and ''a memory to be cherished’’ on the players’ lips. It was crystal clear that the tour was ultimately a triumph of the spirit that cricket so uniquely generates.