At 65, one might be forgiven for thinking Goolam Rajah would be kicking back in a rocking chair with one of his grandkids on his lap sipping a cup of tea. There’ll be time for that now, though Rajah admitted it may take time for him to acclimatise.
“I’m not used to sitting in one chair for more than half-an-hour,” the former South African cricket team manager said this week. “But I am looking forward to spending more time with my wife and my grandkids. In fact, when I dropped them at school this morning, they were asking if I would be doing it every morning. I said hopefully, yes.”
Rajah was the ultimate “behind-the-scenes” man – part travel agent, baggage man, diplomat, father figure and even grocery shopper during his stint as the South African team’s manager. The fact that he did it for so long – 20 years – speaks of his passion for service and for the game of cricket.
“I won’t miss the hotels and the planes, but I will miss the players. They were all different, but it was a privilege and an honour to manage them. I think I did more for them than I did for my own children.”
Rajah has been a part of the national setup since the country’s return to the international arena in 1991. He recalls protesting outside the Wanderers in 1989 against Mike Gatting’s rebel tourists, being thrown in a police van and hit on the head with a baton.
To then be a part of the South African team setup so soon afterwards almost defied belief, but as he stepped down this week, Rajah had gained fame across the world of cricket for his role with the South African side.
Rajah is a colourful character who, on tour, could be found at a hotel front-desk arranging rooms for players, laundry and even trips around the city the team was staying in for the players or even other members of management.
Man-management was, Rajah learnt, very important and understanding how different players ticked became an important part of his job. “In my time, I found no one who was difficult who had to be kept under wraps.”
“If you took someone like Herschelle Gibbs, I would have him in my team purely for his sense of humour, not for the stuff he did off the field, but because he was such a positive dynamic in the dressing-room. It’s when he’s not there that you miss him.
“Daryll Cullinan was different. He was a great cricketer, but he wanted his own space.
“I can honestly say I had a very good relationship with all the players. I have never come across a player who I thought ‘I wish he wasn’t here.’”
That’s not to say players haven’t let him down, because one of the most disappointing periods of his tenure was when Hansie Cronje confessed to match-fixing in 2000.
“I knew the man fairly well, so I was absolutely astounded when the news first came out. If you lined up 12 players and asked me who would be involved in that kind of thing Hansie would have been the last player I would think of.
“We spent hours talking, he taught me a lot about social values, even today I can’t believe he resorted to that.
“I remember telling him afterwards, ‘H, you expected 150% from all us, management included, and look at what you’ve done’.”
“It wasn’t pleasant, one of those things you know about and wish you didn’t know about. We all make mistakes and I guess he paid the ultimate price.”
Over the course of his career, Rajah has seen the face of cricket change and the countries which South Africa have toured change too. Australia and England, being first world countries, are logistically the easiest places to plan for. “Australia would be number one on my list, from a cricket perspective. They have a very strong cricket infrastructure. England is the spiritual home of the game, and there’s a lot of nostalgia for me there because I studied at Leicester University. Also, the easiest part of touring England is not having to worry about flights. We do the whole tour riding around in a bus.
The sub-continent is a different matter, though, as Rajah explains, the region and India in particular has completely changed. “Hotels that were two-star are now 7-star.
“When we went in 1996, we were packing our own biscuits and marmite, that’s how worried we were. Now you go to some hotels and they have the finest chefs.”
“It’s the same with the stadiums. Some of those grounds in 1996 weren’t fit to be club grounds in this country, now, and all the South African players will agree, they have some of the best facilities in the world.”
Still, challenges remain; booking flights in India is a nightmare, having flights take off on time remains the same. “You will find yourself going from Nagpur (in the middle of India) to Kolkata (in the east) via Mumbai (in the west).”
While Cronje was a low-point, the famous “438-game” is a highlight, though it is also one tinged with sadness for Rajah. “I found out during the game that my younger brother, with whom I was extremely close, had pancreatic cancer. When the doctor called me, I just dropped the phone.
“My brother was watching the game and he also loved his cricket, so I kept quiet and only told him afterwards. So that was a joyous day, but one of the saddest too.”
Rajah’s position will be taken over by three people, including one at Cricket SA’s offices, while the team logistical work will be divided between masseuse Riaan Muller and the current team manager Mohammed Moosajee.
“I’ll still be around, but in an advisory role, and I still want to be involved if any teams from the IPL call me up or even domestic franchises.”
While he waits there’s that rocking chair, and the trips to school to pick up the grandkids.