Touring India, the early years

Excitement is understandably high ahead of Thursday’s first Test against India in Mohali and everybody is working hard on their preparation for the big event. A Test series win to add to the two limited overs successes would count amongst South Africa’s most successful tours of all time.

Chief amongst those doing their homework during the final days are statistician Prassana Angoram and head coach Russell Domingo whose knowledge and appreciation of statistics and cricketing history is unsurpassed. If Domingo lacks in any area, it is not history.

Angoram and Domingo have researched and analysed every Test match South Africa have ever played in India and are both acutely aware that, however much things change, they can stay the same. Some lessons from the past will be redundant – others will be more relevant than ever.

So here we go with our look back at the past.

1996-97

Only 22 yards of sawdust and gravel could shock today’s players as much as the pitch which confronted them for their first Test on Indian soil at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad. It was cracked dry mud. So dry that the cracks were breaking at the edges at the end of the first day.

If dismissing India for 223 before lunch on the second day felt like a success, being bowled out for 105 on the fourth to lose by 64 runs was a stark reality check.

South Africa actually managed to take a first innings lead thanks to an extraordinary and unlikely 67 not out by Fanie de Villiers at number nine – he “played the ball, not the pitch” – but chasing a target of 170 in the fourth innings was far beyond the tourists. The lesson from that match was that seamers can be equally prosperous on spinners pitches. Javagal Srinath claimed 6-21 on a surface offering sideways turn.

Indian cricket politics, so often the bane of touring teams, can work in their favour. The Cricket Association of Bengal was irked by the BCCI’s interference in its affairs before the second Test and refused to prepare a similar pitch to Ahmedabad. Instead, it was evenly grassed and more South African than Indian.

Gary Kirsten scored a hundred in both innings and Lance Klusener produced his astonishing 8-64 on debut to blast the tourists to a series-levelling 329-run victory. Klusener had been savaged by Mohammad Azharuddin in the first innings -14-1-75-0 – but listened and learned, changed his length, bowled less bouncers and produced one of the greatest bowling comebacks of all time.

But it was more typical for the decider at Green Park in Kanpur, still the most unfamiliar city for visitors today but infinitely more difficult 18 years ago. Australia and England simply refuse to play in the city. It has one barely standard hotel and, courtesy of its tannery industry, smells like rotten eggs. The sulphur literally permeates your skin, never mind clothes. It takes worldly souls to survive, never mind thrive.

Paul Adams took 6-55 on another dustbowl to dismiss the hosts for 237 – Sachin Tendulkar required 173 deliveries for his top score of 61 – but South Africa fell 60 runs short in conditions too alien for most of them to contemplate, forget cope with.

Azharuddin conjured a magician’s 163 in the second innings, with the ball bouncing unevenly and turning sideways, and South Africa were hammered by 280 runs. The pervasive smell of tanning leather and the wretched hotel made life even worse.

The team were only too happy to leave the most unfamiliar of environments back then but that has changed massively in the intervening years. IPL contracts and infrastructural change too enormous to describe mean today’s players cannot comprehend the difficulties encountered by their predecessors. That is a good thing. Bu they can still learn crucial lessons from years gone by.

Tomorrow and Wednesday I shall recall South Africa’s later tours to India.

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