The kind of Westerners who regard Asians as inscrutable would have done well to keep track of Rahul Dravid’s changing demeanour for the past two months.
Throughout the one-day series, won 4-0 by South Africa, he was like a father trying to explain the poor exam results of his children. He spoke with concern, he promised improvement, he offered no excuses, his eyes implored us to analyse fairly. Then came the Wanderers Test, and everything changed. India were by a furlong the better side. South Africa were outbowled, outbatted, outfielded, outwitted, and duly beaten by 123 runs. Their only solace came from watching Shaun Pollock become the first South African to take 400 Test wickets.
Who can forget Sreesanth’s explosion of exuberance after he smashed Andre Nel for a straight six? A cricket bat was surely never meant to be whirled about like a drum major’s mace, but Sreesanth showed that perhaps it should be when the occasion allows. A bad-tempered pitch dictated that the cricket that needed to be played on it be devoid of poetry, and India delivered the goods.
India’s 249 looked mediocre until South Africa capitulated for 84 in an astounding 25.1 overs, Sreesanth taking five for 40.
Dravid bounded into the post-match press conference on imported air, looking for all the world like a groom moments after his wedding. Well-wishers slapped him on the back, and as they did so the beer splashed from his soaked shirt.
India ‘s first Test victory in South Africa was impressively achieved and lustily celebrated, but disappointment lay ahead in Durban. It was almost as if the Indian team that had shown so much grit and fight in Johannesburg had been replaced by the rabbits who would invariably freeze in the fast bowlers’ headlights on previous tours. Another theory was that the South African attack remembered who they were at Kingsmead after bowling like novices in the first Test. The pitch for the second Test wasn’t as lively as Kingsmead surfaces have been in the past — the Indians who were bowled out for 100 and 66 in Durban in 1997-98 could tell us a few tales — but it favoured the home side nonetheless.
A century was needed to anchor the innings, but none was forthcoming for India. Instead, SA’s Ashwell Prince flexed his considerable mental muscle and scored 121. The home side took a lead of 88 into the second innings, and by the time they declared, India faced a steep target of 354. Totals of similar size have been scored at Kingsmead, but not against a South African team under increasing pressure to level the series. A 2-0 scoreline would have been a catastrophe for the locals, who have had to endure home defeats to England and Australia in the past two seasons.
Bad light robbed the match of more than a day’s play worth of overs, but India would have needed twice as many lost overs to escape. They were bundled out for a dismal 179.
And so to Cape Town with all to play for. Wasim Jaffer’s 116 was India ‘s only century of the series, and it served them well in a first innings of 414. The South Africans did themselves no favours by making an enemy of the pitch. “We slipped into a subcontinent frame of mind, it was like batting at Eden Gardens,” Graeme Smith said, disingenuously, after his team was dismissed 41 runs in arrears with what became the last ball of the third day’s play.
There were four wickets for Anil Kumble and one each for Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar — plenty of evidence that South Africa remain vulnerable to spin on receptive surfaces.
The fourth day began with India losing Sehwag and Jaffer early, and then having to replace Tendulkar with Sourav Ganguly as the next batsman in because Tendulkar needed to serve the last five minutes of the 18 minutes he spent off the field on the third day. Ganguly took eight minutes to reach the crease, but a dollop of common sense from umpire Darryl Harper prevented the South Africans from appealing for timed out.
An innings that began bizarrely stayed that way, and India were dismissed for 169 with the last delivery of a seven-ball over. That left South Africa to score 211 to take the match and with it the series.
AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla were removed before stumps, leaving the home side to score 156 on the final day.
Ganguly said the Indians believed Jacques Kallis held the key to what might transpire on the last day, but SA stole a psychological march by sending Pollock in to continue the chase with Smith.
The runs flowed for 11 overs, and then the rain came down for almost four hours. But that wasn’t enough to stop the South Africans. Questions swirled in the air like the rain clouds. The most pressing one was: Why wasn’t Harbhajan Singh selected as a second spinner?
The defeat hung from Dravid’s shoulders like a cloak of lead. He had come full circle, from the euphoria of Johannesburg to the alarm of Durban, to the confirmation in Cape Town that South Africa are still formidable in their home conditions, even when those conditions have an Indian flavour.