Ravi Shastri was the first India batsman to get a taste of South African cricket. When Allan Donald began his run-up to bowl the first delivery in South Africa’s first ODI after their two-decade isolation from international cricket, the current India team director was the one who took strike as opener at the Eden Gardens, in 1991.
The impact was immediate. Donald struck with his fifth ball in international cricket, Shastri his maiden victim. In no time, the White Lightning had stunned the Eden crowd into silence. India were 20 for three, all three wickets going to Donald.
Those present at the game recall they hadn’t seen anything like that at the Kolkata ground since the 1983 West Indies team: a white fast bowler of superb athletic frame steaming in, and the ball thudding into the keeper’s gloves even as he was on his long follow through.
South Africa meant business from ball one. It was the start of a fine rivalry, which has grown with each series.
In that opening game, the connoisseurs were immediately treated to the battle of the best as Sachin Tendulkar revived the Indian innings. His half-century helped India cross the line but not before Donald claimed his wicket to finish with a five-for as both shared the Man-of-the-Match award.
The two went on to be locked in many more epic duels over that decade to add lustre to this cricket drama. Soon the Tendulkar versus Donald contests expanded to Tendulkar-Rahul Dravid-VVS Laxman-Sourav Ganguly versus Donald-Fanie De Villiers-Brian McMillan-Shaun Pollock match-ups, before the Dale Steyn-Morne Morkel pair took over. The battle remained equally riveting. The last of that great Indian batting line-up, Virender Sehwag, signed off this week, but the rivalry lives on. Breathing fresh life into it have been the likes of Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni and Ajinkya Rahane while Steyn and Morkel have been joined by young gun Kagiso Rabada.
The 2015 India-South Africa series has been given top billing, on par with the Ashes or Australia versus South Africa, and it is living up to it.
There was excitement when South Africa’s 72-day tour was announced. It meant, since England in 2012-13, a top side would be in action for a full tour in a home series. Even better because, unlike the European side, South Africa also take their limited overs cricket seriously.
What is it about the romance of playing against South Africa, especially for the Indian fans?
The hallmark of the South Africa teams has been the intensity they bring to their fielding. Jonty Rhodes set the standard in spectacular style. His anticipation, speed and accuracy have been unmatched. Praveen Amre says it felt as if their bowlers were bowling a line so that the ball would only end up with Rhodes. An easy single against most other opponents became a risky one against the Proteas.
More the merrier
After Jonty, there was Herschelle Gibbs and now there is AB de Villiers.
“I didn’t get a single ball in the middle of the bat during my hundred at Durban,” recollects Amre, the only India batsman to have a century at Kingsmead in 22 years.
The adrenaline rush increases while facing a fast bowler. Your courage is tested. “You have to take blows on the body. I had two back to back deliveries from (left-arm pacer) Brett Schultz thudding into my ribs, Donald hit me on my knuckles a few times during my century as I spent close to five hours at the crease,” says Amre, who got a half-century on ODI debut and hundred on Test debut, both against South Africa.
In India, the contest is a lot even with the conditions partially neutralising South Africa’s feared pace arsenal. No other team, not even Australia, have been able to give as impressive an account of themselves as the Proteas in India. While most try to match India’s spin strength with strength, South Africa have successfully depended on their pacemen to deliver in India. If at home they intimidate with pace and bounce, on subcontinent’s slow surfaces they fall back on discipline to choke the batsmen.
That South Africa have won five Tests and lost five in India speaks for them. Since 2006-07, contests in the longer format have been thrilling. India narrowly lost the 2006-07 contest, drew 1-1 in 2010-11, and though they lost 0-1 in 2013-14, they were unlucky not to win the first Test after dominating the game.
The one-day series has gone with the hosts: South Africa have drawn one but are yet to win in India.
“Historically, our oldest rivalries are against England and Australia — we started playing England in 1889 and Australia a little later. Even though our first game against India was only in 1991, we rate the three series on a par. India provided the main support to pave the way for our return to international cricket. We played the first series here and hosted our first series also against India,” says Ali Bacher, the former SA captain and the man responsible for reviving their international cricket.
Batsmen vs bowlers
Looking at the natural strengths of the two countries, Bacher tips it as a contest between the Indian batting and South Africa bowling. “Our strength has been from Donald to Ntini, Pollock and Steyn. You had terrific batsmen and spinners,” says Bacher. “For me the best day of India versus South Africa cricket was the 1997 New Year’s Test at Cape Town when Nelson Mandela came to the ground and addressed the nation at lunch time. Tendulkar put on a breathtaking show in the company of Mohd Azharuddin. Tendulkar (169, 26 fours) absolutely slaughtered Donald,” recalls Bacher.
If the Indian batsmen are tested by the bouncing and moving ball in South Africa, every time India were under pressure at home, they would roll out a turning track, like they did again at Chennai on Thursday.
But led by De Villiers, South Africa showed turners are no longer unplayable. Former India left-arm spinner Venkatapathy Raju, also part of the early battles against the Proteas, says it’s the IPL effect. “Most of their players are in IPL, they are getting comfortable in these conditions,” says Raju.
It’s exhilarating to watch how these two outfits bring the best out of each other, lift each other’s game to another level.
“They introduced positive and intense cricket. Now everyone is trying to follow them: be aggressive and play to win, which is good to see,” says Raju.
It has been a thrilling ODI series. If AB de Villiers, Rohit Sharma, Kohli, Rabada, Duminy, Steyn and Morkel maintain their form, a feast awaits in the Tests as well.