India braces for Cape of Storms

Such was the Portuguese delight at the discovery of a maritime route to India that John II, who ruled from 1481 to 1495, called the southwestern coast of the African continent the Cape of Good Hope. For India’s cricketers, yet to win a series on South African soil since they first toured the country in 1992-1993, it’s the prospect of “good hope” that strikes a chord.

Twice, Indian dreams of an epochal series win have floundered at Newlands. For the so-called Golden Generation of Indian batting stars, the first failure cut especially deep. The tour of 2006-2007 had been as eventful as any India had undertaken. Sourav Ganguly, who led India to a World Cup final on South African soil (2003) and then pushed for Greg Chappell, the Australian batting legend, to be appointed India’s coach, wasn’t part of the limited-overs squad that was thrashed 4-0.

But more than a year after Chappell, whose tough-love methods didn’t go down well in a dressing room used to John Wright’s more understated ways, insisted that Ganguly be stripped of the captaincy, Indian cricket’s prodigal son was drafted into the Test squad in time for a warm-up game in Potchefstroom.

I happened to be in the vicinity when Chappell received the news and, had a shutterbug been around to capture the moment, he or she would surely have captioned it “Cape Storm”. Ganguly duly top scored in a famous Indian victory at the Wanderers (India’s first in South Africa) but the hosts, with Graeme Smith rediscovering a semblance of form, evened things up in Durban.

Smith’s fortitude was one of the highlights of that series. Savaged in the media over his frailties against Zaheer Khan and taunted by crowds after his break-up with a model — “We hope you scored more with Minki,” said one especially cruel banner — Smith spent much of the build-up to the Cape Town Test batting one-handed to try to overcome the glitches in his technique.

But at a time when the Cape was experiencing a particularly dry period, the pitch that greeted the teams could have been curated in Mumbai or Chennai. India cashed in too, with Wasim Jaffer scoring a century. At one point, with Virender Sehwag, demoted to number seven after repeated failures at the top, and Ganguly stroking the ball fluently, the scoreboard showed 395 for 5. Glory beckoned.

Part of the joy of watching Sehwag lay in the unfettered nature of his approach. But on that occasion, it would come back to haunt India. A top-edged heave was brilliantly taken on the run by Makhaya Ntini to give Paul Harris, making his debut, a third wicket to add to those of Dinesh Karthik and Sachin Tendulkar. Shaun Pollock’s nagging accuracy did the rest, as India lost their last five wickets for just 19.

Smith, whose bat had started coming down much straighter, made a superb 94, but an Indian lead of 41 was still significant on a pitch expected to deteriorate. For whatever reason though, India decided to restore Sehwag to the top. He lasted just three balls before edging Dale Steyn behind, and the rest of the innings was largely an exercise in nervous negativity. Only Ganguly and Karthik batted with any purpose, and much of the damage was done by a passage of play in which Harris made both Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid (they added 24 in 91 balls) look like the progeny of Brigadier Block.

Harris picked up only one wicket, Dravid caught and bowled but his 22 miserly overs were pivotal in India treading water. Steyn duly blew away the tail to ensure that South Africa had only 211 to chase. Smith led the way with another half-century before again falling to Zaheer, and the ugly mood in the Indian dressing room was made worse by Munaf Patel, picked in the squad for his ability to extract reverse swing on dry surfaces, bowling just one over.

Patel had been selected after giving the team assurances that he was fit to play and, after South Africa eased to a five-wicket win on the final afternoon, neither Dravid nor any of the other seniors spoke to the media about that or any other matter. Instead, it was Chappell, who knew that the clock was ticking on his tenure, that fronted up. Again, his pinched and pale face told more than a few stories.

Four years later, India could call on Gary Kirsten’s hometown expertise as they sought to complete a come-from-behind series victory. Thrashed by an innings at Centurion, they had rebounded brilliantly to trounce South Africa in Durban, with VVS Laxman scoring an epic 96 on a pitch where no one else crossed 40.

Kirsten was as popular a figure as Chappell had been contentious. After the Wanderers victory in 2006, Chappell spoke to the Indian media for over an hour. The transcript ran to more than 9 000 words. Kirsten, by contrast, preferred life in the background. He had only ever be seen near the microphones if his players needed to be defended after a poor showing.

Kirsten didn’t just improve the young players — Virat Kohli was one of those capped during his time as coach. He coaxed Indian summers out of the ageing legends. Tendulkar’s batting in South Africa in 2010-2011 was touched by the same greatness he had shown while making 169 at Newlands in 1996-1997.

He made his 50th Test hundred at Centurion — “You really like Sachin, don’t you?” an amused Smith said to an Indian journalist who would not ask questions on any other subject — and then duelled with Steyn at Newlands in a Test that India would have won but for the bloody-mindedness of Jacques Kallis, the Wynberg boy who followed up a first-innings 161 with an unbeaten 109 after South Africa had slipped to 130 for 6, a lead of only 128. That he was batting with a badly bruised rib only made it more special.

That Steyn-Tendulkar showdown was the South Africa-India rivalry at its finest. The finest fast bowler of his generation at the peak of his powers — the banana swinger that got Cheteshwar Pujara deserved to be framed for posterity — up against the boy-wonder-turned-elder-statesman who even Father Time couldn’t subdue. Those who watched the tussle on the third day will never forget it. And it was somehow fitting that it was the last hundred Tendulkar would make in whites.

Those victories in 2006 and 2010 are the only ones India have enjoyed in South Africa but they have come a long way from the side that were skittled for 100 and 66 in Durban 21 years ago. In 32 Tests under Kohli’s leadership, India have won 20 and lost just three. But the seven away victories have all come in either Sri Lanka (5) or West Indies (2), both teams firmly mired in the basement. This calendar year, with tours of South Africa, England and Australia, will give us a truer picture of the team’s quality.

Whatever the surface at Newlands, and the ongoing drought should mean a dry, subcontinent sort of pitch, the Indian side that takes the field will be unrecognisable from the outclassed tourists of the mid-1990s. This side has the pace resources and the batsmen to seriously challenge South Africa. If they do leave the Cape of Storms with a series win, it will be by far the most colourful and eye-catching feather in Kohli’s cap.


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