Indian cricket team begins its tour of South Africa this week, with the fans of the game in the country hoping that the side would be carrying forward the victorious run that was its hallmark during the year that just ended. Virat Kohli and his men had a remarkable run in 2017, prompting critics to hail this as the best year ever in the history of Indian cricket. The series of victories also propelled India to the top spot in Test rankings while being placed at second spot in One-Day Internationals, as per the official release of the International Cricket Council (ICC), by December-end. Hence it is only natural that optimism is not in short supply as the team embarks on its seventh visit to South Africa, after the Rainbow Nation was readmitted to the league of cricket playing nations in 1991.
However, when one analyses the performances of Indian sides during their past visits to South Africa, there does not appear to be much ground for entertaining such fond hopes. During the six previous visits, when a total of 18 Test matches (17 official and one unofficial) were played, India could register wins only on two occasions - the first being at Johannesburg in December, 2006, and the other at Durban in December, 2010. India lost five of the six series played, while managing a 1-1 draw during their visit in 2010-11. Thus, if past history is any indication, Kohli would be facing the toughest test yet in his innings as captain of the national team during this month when all the three Tests would be played.
Kapil wages a lone battle
There have been many memorable incidents during each of these tours which would be recollected by the lovers of the game. During the first tour in 1992, there was a brilliant knock of 129 by Kapil Dev in the third Test at Port Elizabeth, which was scored when India were down in the dumps at 31 runs for 6 wickets at one stage. This innings was played against Allan Donald bowling at his fastest and the fact that the next highest score was only 17 would give an indication about the quality of bowling and the effect it had on the Indian batting.
The highlight of the 1996 tour was the rollicking partnership of 222 runs between skipper Sachin Tendulkar (169 runs off 254 balls) and Mohamed Azharuddin (115 runs off 110 balls) which saved India from near ignominy after they had lost five wickets with only only 58 runs on the board in the second Test at Cape Town.
The tour of 2001 was overshadowed by the action of match referee Mike Denness in slapping penalties on six Indian players during the second Test at Port Elizabeth. While four players were found guilty of “excess appealing” and skipper Saurav Ganguly was indicted for not controlling the players, what galled the Indian cricket establishment and the cricket loving public was the accusation and subsequent verdict against Tendulkar for ball tampering. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) refused to accept the decision of the match referee and wanted Denness to be replaced for the next Test, but the ICC supported him. However, Cricket South Africa supported the BCCI and it announced the replacement of Denness by Denis Lindsay for the third Test. But the ICC held firm and consequently the next Test that was played was erased from the records of ICC and given the garb of an “unofficial” match.
Maiden Test win
India recorded their maiden Test victory over South Africa on their home spoil in the first Test of the 2006-07 tour. The architect of this win was pace bowler S Sreesanth, who bowled a brilliant spell capturing five for 40 to send the hosts scuttling to a mere 84 in the first innings. The Kerala bowler picked up three more wickets in the second innings to return match figures of eight for 99 as India won by 123 runs.
While Sreesanth’s bowling performance would find mention in record books, there occurred an incident in this Test involving the same player which showed that India and Indian cricket had changed from what it used to be during the earlier century.
Sreesanth had, true to the style in which he played the game, stared at batsmen and also bowled bouncers at the South African pacers during his spell in the first innings. South African bowlers made no secret of their intention to give the Indian pacer a taste of his own medicine when he came out to bat. Andre Nel, one of the more demonstrative of the Proteas pacers, was bowling when Sreesanth walked out to bat in the second innings. Nel aggressively strode to the batsman and shouted “I see blood; I see blood on the pitch”, in an attempt to intimidate him. Sreesanth wisely kept his cool and took his guard from the umpire. As Nel bowled the next delivery, Sreesanth placed his left foot down the pitch and gave the ball a mighty whack that carried it all the way to the stands behind long on! And for good measure the batsman did a war dance in front of a much chastened bowler, who hung his head in embarrassment as he walked back to the top of his run up!
To this writer this incident was the most powerful demonstration to the cricket world that the days were past when Indian batsmen used to be intimidated by the sight of fast bowlers and green tops. One incident requires special mention in this regard. In 1978, a West Indian side led by Alvin Kallicharan was touring India and in the fourth Test at Chennai, Kapil Dev, then playing only in his seventh Test, got carried away by the assistance offered by the pitch and bowled bouncers at West Indian tail-enders. When Kapil reached the pavilion after an excellent bowling performance he expected to be congratulated by his teammates. But Instead he was greeted by a volley of abuse from Chetan Chauhan, then opening partner of Sunil Gavaskar. In full view of the whole team, Chauhan berated the young pacer for bowling bouncers against the West Indian fast bowlers “We have to go out and face them in all their fury”, was Chauhan’s closing line. Kapil looked at his skipper Gavaskar for support, but he was greeted with stony silence. Kapil has written in his autobiography that this was one of the most devastating moments of his early career. Sreesanth’s actions involving bowling bouncers at South African pacers, then taking them on bravely and doing a jig after hitting a six showed that this was a new India who had broken the shackles of the past.
India recorded their next win four years later when the side under Mahendra Singh Dhoni toured South Africa. The visitors lost the first Test by a huge margin of an innings and 25 runs, but struck back to win the next Test at Durban by 87 runs. The hero for India was V V S Laxman, who top scored in both innings, including a magnificent 96 in the second outing when he held the Indian batting together till he became the last batsman to be dismissed. Indian bowling was led by Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth and they, along with off spinner Harbhajan Singh, ensured that South African batsmen could never settle down and mount an effective challenge.
The last visit to South Africa took place in 2013, which was the first tour undertaken by India after the retirement of Tendulkar from the game. The first Test of the series provided edge-of-the-seat excitement till the very end as South Africa came close to reaching a near impossible target of 458, finally falling only eight runs short, with three wickets in hand, when the match ended in a draw. South Africa won the second Test by a margin of 10 wickets to wrest the series.
In this context one should not forget the performance of Tendulkar during the five tours that he had been part of. He scored a century in each of the Test series, except during the tour of 2006-07, against the best contemporary pace bowling, on wickets that favored the speedsters. In 1992, he scored 111 in the first innings of the second Test out of a team total of 227, while in the second tour he hit 169 in the second Test, which was mentioned earlier. During the tour in 2001, he led the Indian response in the first Test with an attacking knock of 155, when he shared a partnership of 220 with Virender Sehwag, who was making his Test debut. Though he did not score a century in 2006, he more then made up during the next tour in 2010, when he hit an unbeaten 111 in the second innings of the first Test at Centurion, which was incidentally his 50th hundred in Test cricket. This was followed by a masterly 146 in the first innings of the last Test at Cape Town. It is this ability to perform with aplomb in the most adverse of circumstances that elevated Tendulkar from the rank of mortals and placed him among the pantheons of cricket greats.
Most of the players in the team that Kohli is leading to South Africa had toured the country in 2013 and hence the present squad is not short of experience as far as the conditions there are concerned. There would be the obvious question of not having enough time to get used to the playing conditions as the team landed there just prior to the first Test which starts on Friday (January 5). Since this was a decision of the BCCI, taken with the interest of players in mind, one cannot question that. But past experience shows that team has always performed better when it had more time to acclimatize to the conditions there by playing some preparatory first class matches.
Let us wish Kohli and the boys Godspeed as they embark on tour to a country where India have never won a Test series. It would be the perfect start to 2018 if the side could break this jinx and return with the Freedom Trophy, for which the battle would be fought on the cricket fields. It would be the fond hope of millions of cricket fans in the country that the new bride Anushka Sharma brings that element of good fortune to skipper Kohli to help him achieve what none of his predecessors could accomplish - a Test series victory in South Africa.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)