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Rewind to 1996-97: South Africa's first Test series on Indian soil

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South_Africa_India_Test_CricketSouth Africa have commenced their World Test Championship campaign with a challenging three-match series in India for the Freedom Trophy, with the first Test in Vizag having ended in a 203-run defeat.

Though the South Africans visited India in 1991-92 for their first official international tour since readmission, it was not until 1996-97 that they played their first Test series on Indian soil. This three-Test series turned out to be a gripping and fluctuating affair.

India had not lost a home series since 1986-87, while South Africa had not lost any series since losing the fixture that marked their return to the Test fold, against the West Indies in 1991-92. Two weeks before the opening Test, the hosts had defeated South Africa in the final of the Titan Cup ODI tri-series (also involving Australia), thus adding to their win in the one-off Test against Australia at Delhi earlier in the season – the first to be played for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

The series began with India’s 300th Test on November 10, 1996 at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad’s suburban neighbourhood of Motera, where a dusty pitch greeted captains Sachin Tendulkar and Hansie Cronje. The aforesaid Test against Australia was Tendulkar’s first ever as captain, and India’s chances of a second consecutive win under him were boosted when he won the crucial toss and elected to bat. Making his debut for India was a 22-year-old VVS Laxman.

The lack of a substantial partnership – the highest stand was 41 between Sanjay Manjrekar (who was playing what would be his final Test) and Rahul Dravid for the second wicket – hampered India’s innings, as the fiery Allan Donald (4/37) spearheaded a commendable bowling effort that limited the total to 223. The top-scorer was Tendulkar, who had motored to a promising 42 before falling prey to a diving catch at mid-wicket by Jonty Rhodes off off-spinner Pat Symcox.

Gary Kirsten and Andrew Hudson put on 29 for the first wicket in reply, before the former was stumped by Nayan Mongia off Anil Kumble. Thereafter, the troika of leg-spinners Kumble and Narendra Hirwani and left-armer Sunil Joshi (4/43) combined to leave South Africa at 119/7. The umpiring did not help the Proteas’ cause either, as both Daryll Cullinan, who scored a gritty 43, and Cronje were at the receiving end of controversial leg-before decisions from S.K. Bansal.

Fanie de Villiers, batting at number nine, led South Africa’s comeback with an unbeaten 67 – he added 63 with Symcox for the eighth wicket and 60 with Donald for the ninth wicket to hand his team a narrow 21-run lead. Minutes later, Donald sent India’s openers back with only 15 on the board, and when Brian McMillan got rid of Tendulkar – again due to a Rhodes catch, India were in a spot of bother at 38/3. The score further stumbled to 124/7, with India’s lead being only 103.

Kumble joined Laxman at this stage, and the duo went on to raise a vital eighth-wicket stand worth 56. Laxman (51) showcased the determination that would characterise many of his innings in the future, as India’s total improved to 190. South Africa thus needed 170 for victory with almost two days left, but with batting getting increasingly difficult, the game was very much in the balance. Much to the crowd’s jubilation, paceman Javagal Srinath gave India a rousing start.

Opening the bowling, Srinath had Hudson trapped on the pad off his fifth delivery, and followed it up by having Cullinan caught behind off the next ball to reduce South Africa to 0/2. Cronje (48*) tried to hold the fort, but found little support. With the score at 96/4, Srinath dismissed Dave Richardson and Rhodes in successive balls, and went on to finish with 6/21 – his first Test five-wicket haul – in a fine exhibition of pace and swing, which condemned South Africa to 105.

South Africa shrugged off the disappointment of Ahmedabad in emphatic fashion, as they secured a landslide 329-run win in the second Test at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta (as Kolkata was then known). This remained India’s largest defeat by runs until 2004-05, when Australia beat them by 342 runs at Nagpur. Cronje called correctly this time, and had no hesitation in batting first. The visitors included two debutants – Herschelle Gibbs and Lance ‘Zulu’ Klusener.

Unlike the one at Motera, the surface here was favourable for batting, and Hudson and Kirsten took advantage with an opening stand of 236. Kirsten was the first to fall for 102, while Hudson put on another 60 for the second wicket with Gibbs before being dismissed by seamer Venkatesh Prasad. South Africa began the second day at 339/2, but Prasad’s return of 6/104 ensured that the total was kept to 428. In response, the Indians slumped from 68/0 to 152/6 by the end of the day.

The score duly became 161/7 on the third morning, at which point Kumble was joined by Azharuddin, who had retired hurt after being struck on the elbow when India were 87/3. ‘Azhar’ (109) soon launched a breathtaking counterattack, as he raced to his fifty in 35 balls and three figures off just 74 balls – till date the joint-fastest Test century by an Indian. Kumble was as effective with a breezy 88, and the pair’s eighth-wicket partnership of 161 bolstered India to 329.

A second hundred from Kirsten (133) and an unbeaten 153 from Cullinan – they put on 212 for the second wicket – tightened South Africa’s grip, enabling Cronje to declare at 367/3. A three-wicket burst from Klusener, who had been taken for 20 runs in an over by Azhar in the first innings, sent India crashing to 28/4 in an improbable chase of 467. Azhar made a rapid 52, but Klusener proceeded to grab an amazing 8/64 – the fourth-best innings haul by a bowler on debut.

The action for the decider moved to Kanpur’s Green Park, where India, not surprisingly, chose to bat first on a slow track. Mongia and Woorkeri Raman (57) shared 76 for the first wicket, and at 185/3, with Tendulkar (61) and Dravid in the middle, India seemed to be in a solid position. However, the 19-year-old chinaman bowler Paul Adams, armed with his unique ‘frog in a blender’ action, engineered a collapse with figures of 6/55, which helped bowl India out for 237.

The South African batting came a cropper against Srinath, Kumble (4/71) and off-spinner Ashish Kapoor, giving India a handy 60-run lead. South Africa stayed in the hunt by having India at 121/4 in the second dig, before Tendulkar and Azharuddin added 71 for the fifth wicket. Azhar firmly swung the contest in India’s favour with another stroke-filled century, this time going on to 163*. His sixth-wicket stand of 165 with Dravid (56) spurred India to a declaration at 400/7.

Staring at a target of 461, South Africa were dealt an early double blow when Srinath and Prasad removed Kirsten and Gibbs respectively. To compound matters, Cullinan was run out by Tendulkar at mid-off, making the score 39/3. Cronje scored a defiant 50, but it was never going to be enough. South Africa entered the final day at 127/5, and their already faint hopes of drawing the Test were left hanging by a thread when Joshi scalped McMillan off the fourth ball.

The winning moment arrived after lunch, when Adams was caught by Azharuddin off Srinath to seal a 280-run triumph for India – then their largest victory margin. Azhar, who was named Man of the Series, topped the run charts with a tally of 388 at 77.60, while Srinath was the highest wicket-taker with 17 victims at 20.94. Incidentally, India’s unbeaten series streak at home was eventually snapped by South Africa, who swept a two-match series on their next tour in 1999-00.



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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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