Javagal Srinath © Getty Images (File Photo)
Javagal Srinath © Getty Images (File Photo)

Javagal Srinath single-handedly routed South Africa on November 23, 1996. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at India’s first Test victory over South Africa.

India had always held special memories for South Africans. South Africa had, after all, staged their comeback to the world of cricket five years back against India. The tour had consisted of 3 ODIs. South Africa hosted India for a four-Test tour the year after that, but even as late as in 1996-97, India were yet to host a Test series against South Africa.

By the time they arrived in India, South Africa had made their ascent to one of the top spots in the world cricket. They had emerged as one of the leading fast bowling units in the world. Though they had to leave Shaun Pollock, behind they were still equipped with the pack of Allan Donald, Fanie de Villiers, Brian McMillan, and a youngster called Lance Klusener.

The team was in the capable hands of Hansie Cronje, who formed a crucial cog of the batting line-up that consisted of the likes of Gary Kirsten, Andrew Hudson, Daryll Cullinan, and Jonty Rhodes. For the series in India — especially on the dusty pitch at Motera — they decided to go in with two spinners in the form of Paul Adams and Pat Symcox.

With a batting line-up that had been tried and tested at home over the years, India seemed a formidable opposition as well. They decided to open with Nayan Mongia and play five bowlers, which meant that Sunil Joshi was scheduled to bat at 7 — possibly a position or two above what he was supposed to.

India probably played a wrong card in including Venkatesh Prasad, who did not get a chance to bowl a lot in the Test. Sourav Ganguly, who had an excellent start to his Test career earlier that year, had to be left out because of a leg injury. He was replaced by a young Hyderabadi called VVS Laxman.

Day One: Donald and Rhodes rout Indians

The pitch was brownish and it seemed that it would deteriorate as the Test would progress. Sachin Tendulkar won a crucial toss: the decision was a no-brainer. Mongia walked out with Sanjay Manjrekar, and after half an hour of cricket, Mongia was trapped leg-before by de Villiers. This was the first of what would be a chain of wrong decisions SK Bansal would take throughout the Test.

Rahul Dravid walked out. He had not batted above 5 till now in his career, but Ganguly’s injury meant that the No. 3 position was left vacant. Dravid was promoted; he would go on to rule that position for the next 15 years.

Watching Manjrekar and Dravid bat together in the first session of a Test in late 1996 was not really one of the most entertaining sights in world cricket (contemporary or otherwise); but to their credit, the pair hung on. They knew that the longer they stayed, the more the pitch would deteriorate in the fourth innings.

Manjrekar fell just before lunch: Adams brought in a whizzing top-spinner that bowled him. Tendulkar walked out and took control of things after lunch. He lost Dravid, who was leg-before off Symcox, but dominated proceedings in company of Mohammad Azharuddin, who had become the first person to play Tests against all countries, home and away.

India seemed to be recovering at 129 for 3, which was when Rhodes struck. Symcox tossed one up that Tendulkar drove fiercely; diving full-stretch to his left at mid-wicket Rhodes pulled off an outstanding catch. The Little Master’s 42 had taken him only 64 balls, and had included 7 fours.

Little did he know that it would be the highest score of the innings. Rhodes struck again, running out Azhar with a direct hit from cover to bring down the stumps at the striker’s end.

Donald had bowled brilliantly throughout the day without any success; he was often too good to find the edge, and at times missed the stumps by a whisker. In the late afternoon, however, he picked out Laxman, Javagal Srinath, and Joshi in quick succession. India finished the day on 215 for 8 with Kumble on 13 and Prasad on 7.

Day Two: The de Villiers defiance

Donald and de Villiers picked up the last two wickets the next morning without much fuss. India were bowled out for 223; Donald finished with 4 for 37 while de Villiers and Symcox snared 2 apiece.

India hit back. Kirsten and Hudson spent an hour, but Kumble struck twice in quick succession, first having Kirsten stumped and then having Hudson leg-before. Bansal then gave his second wrong leg-before decision of the Test when Cronje was given out to a ball off Hirwani that had clearly pitched outside leg-stump.

Cullinan held fort for a while, but Joshi struck thrice in quick succession as the tourists slumped from 95 for 3 to 119 for 7. Cullinan was also given a dubious leg-before by Bansal as he had stretched his left leg full-stretch when it had hit the pad.

All 7 wickets had fallen to spinners. The strangest dismissal was probably that of McMillan: Joshi had tossed the ball on leg-stump; McMillan played on a horribly wrong off-stump line; the ball went straight between his pads and hit the leg-stump. Suddenly 223 seemed miles away as de Villiers walked out to join Symcox at the crease.

Over the next hour-and-a-half, de Villiers put up an excellent display of application. Both he and Symcox used their feet to reach the pitch of the ball; not only did they hang around, but they also played their strokes when anything was pitched a bit too full or too short.

Joshi struck the crucial blow before stumps by trapping Symcox leg-before for 32. The pair had added 63 in 93 minutes; it may not seem an astounding number, but on the pitch it was a phenomenal contribution. Even after Symcox’s dismissal de Villiers stood ground, and scored the first half-century of the Test just before stumps with a drive through mid-wicket off Kumble. The tourists finished at 202 for 8 — 21 in arrears — with de Villiers on 50 and Donald on 2.

Day Three: A wizard arrives

The Indians had probably thought they would mop up things when they had seen the back of Symcox. On the third morning Donald surprised them by using his long left-foot to counter the spin; he batted for 89 minutes, and though he scored only 17, he helped de Villiers add 60 for the ninth wicket.

It took a burst from Srinath to finish off the tail. South Africa had taken a crucial 21-run lead as de Villiers remained unbeaten with a 136-ball 67 with 5 fours and a six. Joshi finished with 4 for 43 while Srinath, Kumble, and Hirwani picked up 2 wickets each.

Warmed up by his innings Donald bowled with hostile pace, removing both openers before India had managed to eradicate the lead. Tendulkar sliced a well-disguised slower delivery from McMillan to Rhodes at point, leaving the hosts in tatters at 38 for 3.

Dravid and Azhar then had a partnership of sorts, adding 44 for the fourth wicket before McMillan stretched full-length to his right to come up with a brilliant catch to dismiss Azharuddin off Donald. At the other end Dravid’s resistance came to an end when he was trapped in front by Symcox. India were only 70 runs ahead at this stage.

Laxman found an ally of sorts in Joshi, who hung around for close to an hour before edging one off Symcox; when de Villiers removed Srinath India were 124 for 5 (103 ahead) — with the only specialist batsman at the crease being a debutant, and the likes of Prasad and Hirwani to follow.

In another part of the world, JK Rowling, having conceived the tale of a boy wizard years back, had finally found a publisher. The record-breaking series would be launched in seven months’ time. In November 1996, however, Ahmedabad witnessed the arrival of another wizard with a wand of a different kind.

It was the sort of innings that had typified Laxman’s career over the years: come in with the side in trouble; losing partners at the other end; finding an ally somewhere in the tail; building up a match-winning partnership; and doing all of it in the most elegant manner possible.

The amazing aspect of the innings was, however, the way in which the runs were scored. The wrist-work that so exemplified the men from Hyderabad was in full display; in some ways he seemed to be like Azhar, but his strokes mostly stood out in their own individuality.

Play was held up for ten minutes when one of the spectators threw a small piece of concrete at Adams. India finished the day on 172 for 7 with Laxman on 50 and Kumble on 22. They were 151 runs ahead, and probably needed another 50 to 75 runs to have a go at the South African line-up.

Day Four: Of pace, swing, and a dash of Bansal

Laxman fell early, but not before he and Kumble added 56 runs in 82 minutes. It was this partnership that eventually decided the Test. At 22, Laxman showed that he was as mature as anyone else in his side: he batted for 170 minutes, faced 125 balls, and his 51 included 6 strokes to the fence.

The innings finally ended when Adams trapped him leg-before. Prasad fell two balls later, and Hirwani had a couple of wild slogs before an ugly hoick off Adams to mid-wicket. Kumble remained unbeaten on 30. Donald and Adams picked up 3 wickets each while Symcox had 2.

India had added only 18 runs on the fourth morning. They were bowled out for 190, leaving the tourists only 170 to pull off their first Test victory on Indian soil. They had all the time in their hand.

India needed early wickets from somewhere, and it was Srinath who provided them with the first breakthrough. The fifth ball of the first over swung back and rapped Hudson on the pads; Bansal’s finger rose in acknowledgement — though replays suggested that the ball would have missed leg-stump.

Motera erupted as Cullinan edged the next ball to Mongia; Srinath’s figures read 1-1-0-2: he had provided India with the best possible start. Kirsten and Cronje provided resistance, and though Prasad bowled accurately, Tendulkar, faced with the urgency to pick up wickets, turned to his spinners. At the other end, he also rested a tiring Srinath.

Joshi stuck to a steady line, and bowling round the wicket, trapped Kirsten leg-before to end his resistance. McMillan played a few strokes before holing out to Joshi off Kumble, but Dave Richardson batted stubbornly to provide Cronje with company.

Tendulkar brought Srinath back for another burst. At 95 for 4 the Test was set for an hour or so that would tilt the match in the favour of one of the teams. Could Srinath — who was yet to pick up a five-for in Test cricket — swing things back India’s way, literally or otherwise?

He struck immediately as Richardson edged one when he tried to slash him without any footwork. Rhodes, who had not fielded for a significant while because of a hamstring injury, walked out at 7. The first ball, an attempted yorker, hit him on the pad; the ball was so wide of the stumps that had Rhodes missed it would have gone to leg-slip. Bansal, however, thought otherwise, and for the second time in the innings, Srinath picked up two in two.

But Cronje was still there, and Symcox walked out; de Villiers, the hero of the first innings, was yet to arrive. South Africa reached hundred before Symcox was bowled by Kumble for a duck; 4 balls later Azhar caught de Villiers without a run being added.

It was only a matter of time from there. Donald hit a desperate four, but 170 seemed far away. Srinath hit Donald’s leg-stump and Adams’ off-stump in successive deliveries, picking up 6 for 21. It was also the third time in the innings that he dismissed two batsmen off successive deliveries in the innings.

South Africa were bowled out for 105 in 38.5 overs. They had lost their last 6 wickets for 9 runs in 25 balls. Kumble played his part and returned figures of 3 for 34. Had Cronje not scored a valiant 122-ball 48 over 172 minutes things would have been worse for South Africa. India, in the process, registered their first Test victory against South Africa.

What followed?

- Cronje was livid after the defeat. He called the umpiring ‘unfair’ (‘pathetic’ would have been a better word, since Bansal was somewhat non-discriminating with his poor decisions), the dressing-rooms ‘filthy’, and the practice facilities ‘non-existent’.

- The second Test at Eden Gardens saw some excellent performances — the most significant among them being Kirsten’s twin tons, an outrageous 77-ball 109 from Azharuddin, and an eight-wicket haul from a debutant Klusener. In the end South Africa squared the series by winning the Test by 329 runs.

- India took the series by winning the third Test at Green Park by 280 runs. The Test was decided almost entirely by Azharuddin’s 163 not out on a minefield.

- In the return series that started the same month South Africa won by huge margins at Kingsmead and Newlands; India pulled off a draw at New Wanderers but ended up losing the series.

Brief scores:

India 223 (Sachin Tendulkar 44; Allan Donald 4 for 37) and 190 (VVS Laxman 51; Paul Adams 3 for 30, Allan Donald 3 for 32) beat South Africa 244 (Darryl Cullinan 43, Fanie de Villiers 67*; Sunil Joshi 4 for 43) and 105 (Hansie Cronje 48*; Javagal Srinath 6 for 21, Anil Kumble 3 for 34) by 64 runs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry. He blogs at ovshake dot blogspot dot com and can be followed on Twitter @ovshake42).