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The India-South Africa bond roots deeper than trimming of moustaches and settling scores. Freedom Series, as it is called, has historical and cultural references that transcend time. It’s nice to see South African broadcasters of the upcoming series have played on the right lines while promoting the event, honouring Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

Gandhi had spent two decades in South Africa after qualifying as a lawyer, following his studies in London. During these years he developed the philosophy of Satyagraha to counter the racial repression he encountered in South Africa.

A century or so later, in 1991-92, India welcomed South Africa back to international cricket post the apartheid era. South Africa have remained thankful for the same. Eden Gardens was the venue of the match. Five years later, they would play their first Test on Indian soil at Ahmedabad, 5 km from Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram.

“In honour of India and South Africa’s shared history to win freedom through non-violence, the Test series between the two nations will forever be known as the Freedom series,” runs the South African promo.

Their Indian counterparts have focused more on the revenge.

There is no revenge when you have been drubbed in five out of your six South Africa visits. It’s about the mauka. India are yet to win a series in the Rainbow nation and this narrates a startling tale of domination.

1992-93

Twenty-five years back, the Mohammad Azharuddin became the first captain to lead India to South Africa since their readmission. A 19-year-old Sachin Tendulkar was a part of the side. South Africa were ready for the bigger leap.

Tendulkar recently told The Times of India: “When we went to South Africa for the first time, it didn’t take us long to realise what was coming our way. From the first game itself we realised the level of cricket they were playing. For instance, the warm-up game that we played against the Board’s President’s XI back then was a huge eye-opener for us.

“Even their second and third teams showed such immense potential. At each level, they were busy raising the bar. They’ve always been a competitive side in multiple ways.”

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The first ever Test between these sides was played at Durban. Omar Henry became the first South African non-white Test cricketer (though some would argue that ‘Buck’ Llewellyn was the first). At 40, Henry also became their oldest Test debutant.

Stephen Cook, Jonty Rhodes, Brian McMillan, Brett Schultz, Ajay Jadeja and Pravin Amre made their debuts as well alongside Henry. Kapil Dev dismissed Cook off the first ball of the Test. Kepler Wessels became the first batsman to score centuries for two countries. Amre scored a magnificent hundred, becoming only the second (after Wessels) to score a hundred on Test debut and a fifty on ODI debut. The Test ended in a draw.

Sachin Tendulkar (left) and debutant Pravin Amre (centre) with Sunil Gavaskar (Image courtesy: Getty)
Sachin Tendulkar (left) and debutant Pravin Amre (centre) with Sunil Gavaskar (Image courtesy: Getty)

However, the series is remembered for a different reason as well. This was the first time that the third umpire was used in a Test match. Karl Liebenberg became the first television umpire to impact an on-field decision, ruling Tendulkar run out.

The second Test at Johannesburg too ended in a draw. Tendulkar impressed with a hundred. Hansie Cronje and Allan Donald powered South Africa to a 9-wicket win at Port Elizabeth despite a whirlwind innings from Kapil.

The fourth Test at Cape Town ended in a draw. India had lost series 0-1.

1996-97

India had just beaten South Africa 2-1 at home. South Africa came hard in India’s return tour. At Durban, Venkatesh Prasad got 10 wickets, but the Indian batters struggled, managing just 100 and 66 in both innings.

India lost the Cape Town Test by 282 runs and conceded the series. McMillan got a hundred, a fifty, 2 catches and 2 wickets in the Test. From the Indian point of view, the match will be remembered for Tendulkar (169) and Azhar’s (115) incredible counterattacking 222-run stand for the sixth wicket. Azhar had scored at a strike rate of 105.

Rahul Dravid got his maiden Test hundred, at Johannesburg. India dominated the Test but bad light prevented the visitors from winning their first Test in South Africa.

2001-02

Tendulkar played an iconic innings of 155 at Bloemfontein. Virender Sehwag made his Test debut and crafted 105. These efforts weren’t enough to prevent a 9-wicket defeat as Shaun Pollock got a 10-wicket haul.

Gutsy knocks from Deep Dasgupta and Dravid saved India the Cape Town Test. However, the match saw controversies at galore. Match referee Mike Denness had suspended Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Shiv Sundar Das and Deep Dasgupta for a Test for excessive appealing. Skipper Sourav Ganguly was banned for a Test and 2 ODIs for not being able to control his players while Tendulkar was labelled ‘a cheat’ and suspended for a Test for ‘ball-tampering’ charges.

When Sachin Tendulkar was called a ‘cheat’!
When Sachin Tendulkar was called a ‘cheat’!

Denness’ effigies were duly burnt in India and the matter was discussed in Indian Parliament and ICC were accused of discrimination. India decided to include Sehwag. ICC retaliated by stripping the final match of Test status.

South Africa won the match easily. Connor Williams, who handled fast bowling as efficiently as any of his teammates in the match, never got a Test cap.

2006-07

These weren’t the happiest times in Indian cricket. Greg Chappell was the coach while Dravid was the captain. The Ganguly-Chappell controversy had marred Indian cricket. In difficult batting conditions at Johannesburg, Ganguly stroked to 51* in his comeback innings to help India reach 249.

It was Sreesanth from thereon. He produced one of the finest spells of pace bowling to shoot out South Africa for 84. India had a better second innings and set South Africa 402 thanks to an excellent partnership between VVS Laxman and Zaheer Khan. Sreesanth, Zaheer and Anil Kumble then picked 3 each as India registered their first Test win on South African soil.

India lost the Durban Test as Makhaya Ntini claimed 8 wickets. The decider at Cape Town was an exciting affair. Wasim Jaffer stroked to a hundred. Dinesh Karthik, Tendulkar and Ganguly got fifties to help India to 414. South Africa got 373.

India, going strong at 90 for 2, collapsed for 169 with Dale Steyn taking 4 wickets. South Africa chased down 211 but there were jitters with Zaheer claiming 4 wickets. It was a hard-earned win for South Africa and India’s second innings collapse meant it was another series defeat in South Africa.

2010-11

It was MS Dhoni’s first tour of South Africa as captain. India were the No. 1 ranked side in the ICC Test Rankings.

Unfortunately, they hit reality in the first Test, where Steyn and Morne Morkel combined to bring down India’s batting. Uncapped Jaydev Unadkat, summoned out of nowhere to replace Zaheer, was hammered. South Africa feasted on India’s bowling with Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers getting hundreds and Kallis a double hundred.

Tendulkar fought well with 111 not out, his 50th Test hundred. Dhoni too battled with a counterattacking 90, but it was not enough.

The Durban track was green and no one gave India a chance. Steyn’s 6-wicket haul dismantled India for 205. Zaheer and Harbhajan then triggered a South African collapse by claiming 3 and 4 wickets respectively.

Once again Laxman rose to the occasion, once again with Zaheer for company. Laxman’s 96 helped India set South Africa 303; they collapsed for 215.

The game will be remembered for Sreesanth’s unplayable bouncer to Kallis.

The decider was played at Cape Town. Jacques Kallis’ 161 powered South Africa to 362 with Sreesanth getting another 5-for.

Then followed a duel, the kind of which they refer to as “battle meant for the gods”. As Steyn hurled one thunderbolt after another at the Indian batsmen, Tendulkar calmed the storm, keeping his partners away from strike. The unstoppable force kept coming hard at the immovable object, and in the end the honours were shared. It was definitely one of the greatest battles of the 21st century.

Tendulkar’s 146, his 51st hundred, helped India to gain a 2-run lead. Kallis scored the second hundred of the game as Harbhajan Singh got 7 wickets. India needed 340 to win and they adopted a safety first approach and settled for a draw.

For the first time in five attempts India did not lose a series in South Africa.

2013-14

Tendulkar had retired a month back. Virat Kohli was elevated to the No. 4 spot. He had to prove the world that he wasn’t just a flat-track bully. His 119 at Johannesburg helped India to 280. Zaheer and Ishant Sharma claimed 4 wickets each to help India to a 36-run lead.

Cheteshwar Pujara scored 153 in the second innings as Kohli missed his second hundred of the match by 4 runs. South Africa were set 458. India sniffed a win when Kallis fell leaving the side at 197 for 4.

De Villiers and Faf du Plessis then played for time as edges flew past the slip cordon multiple times. The duo got their eye in and there began a flurry of attractive strokes. They both registered their hundreds. South Africa were in brink of a famous win, that would have been the highest successful chase in history. They needed 20 from the final 4 overs of the match.

Faf flayed one through midwicket off Zaheer to bring the chase down to 16. He was run out 2 balls later. They were 7 down, and South Africa had a history of choking in close contests — but Vernon Philander settled for a draw. 16 was needed off the final over but Philander played it safe. 

The Boxing Day Test was played at Durban. Vijay finally came good in South Africa and was dismissed 3 short of his hundred. South Africa replied to India’s 334 with 500. Kallis, playing in his final Test, crafted 115.

Only Ajinkya Rahane could stand the Test of second innings as India folded for 223. South Africa registered a 10-wicket victory.

2017-18

India did not play a warm-up match. Kohli is at helm. This is his first full series as captain outside the subcontinent. Steyn and de Villiers have returned to the South African unit, though the former will miss the first Test. The last time the two met in Tests, India had humiliated South Africa on spin-friendly tracks at home, ending their rule as the No. 1 Test side.

If ‘revenge’ should be in any side’s mind, it will be South Africa. For Kohli’s men, this series is an opportunity to prove their No. 1 tag.