SK Flashback: India's first taste of victory on South African soil
After the culmination of a dark era of racial discrimination, the international sports ban on South Africa was lifted in 1992. India were the first cricket team to tour the country, with a well-rounded team pitted against a bunch of individual stalwarts. Twenty-five years down the line, the territory is still unconquered by Indian cricket and barring a few bright spots later into the millennium, their performance has been shoddy.
The first blood took almost fifteen years, but the waiting had made it sweeter. It was a clinical performance: Rahul Dravid's astute captaincy, Sourav Ganguly's impactful comeback, and the image of Indian seamers hunting like a wolf pack- the match had every ingredient to etch itself into cricketing folklore. It was the first time India had a realistic chance of taking the Freedom series home, but like every great Test team, South Africa had in them what it takes to script a memorable comeback.
Taking the gambit
Rahul Dravid won the luck of the coin in a morning when the pitch looked treacherous. The Fab 5 were together again, which may have prompted him to trust his batting to see the new ball off to get runs later in the day. In Wasim Jaffer, India had a technically sound player who was up to the task. The plan backfired, as Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini got both him and Virender Sehwag back in the pavilion for 14.
As in the majority of his career, Dravid was left to rebuild the innings in the company of the master blaster. The two steadied the ship, and Indians had just started to breathe normally when Jacques Kallis provided the much-needed breakthrough removing Tendulkar. The demons of the pitch resurfaced, and the South African pace quartet made full use of it.
India were 156-5 in no time when the captain-to-be joined the ex-captain. Even when Dhoni departed with an inconsequential score, Ganguly had a point to prove. He relied on a staunch defence, unperturbed by the taunting short pitched ones, and waited calmly for the loose balls. It was so uncharacteristic of the prince of Bengal, who was known to wear his heart on his sleeve.
There was not an aorta of support from the lower order which fell like ninepins. With the help of VRV Singh who struck a few lucky blows towards the end, Ganguly dragged India to almost 250. He remained unbeaten on a gutsy 51 on a minefield of a pitch.
Seamers running riot
With a below par score on board, India were on the back foot at the start of second innings. Zaheer Khan bowled a gem of an over to his bunny, Graeme Smith, who never looked comfortable even in a single one of those deliveries. Visibly unsettled, he played across the line to Sreesanth to get trapped in a plumb LBW.
Zaheer then enticed Gibbs to a peachy cover drive which was pouched in a flash of a second by Sehwag. Sreesanth continued bowling scorchers along the corridor of uncertainty and quickly accounted for a young Hashim Amla, and then Jacques Kallis. Zaheer prised out De Villiers with the rising ball and South Africa looked in dire straits at 33-5. Sreesanth completed his maiden fifer with a double strike removing Boucher and Pollock, and South Africa had all hopes lost at 45-7.
Ashwell Prince and Andre Nel added 39 to take them to 84-7, but the introduction of Anil Kumble did the trick for India, as he beat Prince and Makhaya Ntini off successive balls. South Africa lost last three wickets without adding a run and were skittled out for a paltry 84.
A cautious second essay
Having procured a humongous (in context of the match) lead, India needed to bat sensibly to set an improbable target for South Africa. The Proteas, on the other hand, needed to restrict India to below 150 to have any realistic chances of chasing. Traditionally, India have had the habit of squandering away advantageous situation to land themselves in a remarkable disarray.
They almost repeated the feat when South Africa had them at 61-4 with both Tendulkar and Dravid being accounted for, and later at 148-7 with the last batsman Dhoni and a modest Anil Kumble back in the dressing room. But at both these critical junctures, India had someone who, time and again, has been the pioneer of second essays- the Very Very Special Laxman. He stitched vital partnerships with Ganguly and later Zaheer Khan, with a resolute 73.
As Zaheer also chipped in with 37, India's lead swelled above 400. The third innings was also not devoid of drama as Sreesanth confronted a steaming Andre Nel. The two had a hot exchange of words as both were infamous for their use of expletives on the field. However, as Nel darted in the next ball, Sreesanth charged down the ground to hit him for a straight six, celebrating by swirling his bat like a man possessed.
The Clinical finish
South Africa were set an improbable target of 402 to chase, and India were high on confidence, on the verge of a historic triumph. Zaheer and Sreesanth were in the thick of the action yet again, as they had the top three removed with just 34 on board. Jacques Kallis kept the wickets at bay for a while, doing what he does the best - rock solid defending. He was admirably supported by a young Ashwell Prince who looked like he could get nothing wrong.
Once Kallis was removed though, the floodgates opened again. Barring a brilliant counterattacking 40 by Shaun Pollock, Prince found no support at the other end. Once Pollock departed, the game was already over for the Proteas. Prince trudged along but was denied a well-deserved century when he was castled by Kumble for a well-crafted 97.
As India completed the formalities, there was no wild celebration: just a few shouts of a hard-earned win and a serene tranquil at the end of a long wait. The bowlers had done the job without a fuss, with Zaheer, Sreesanth and Kumble taking three apiece, and Sreesanth getting the man of the match for his match haul of 8/99.