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Test matches (3): South Africa 2, India 1
One-day internationals (5): South Africa 4, India 0
Twenty20 international (1): South Africa 0, India 1
India arrived for their fourth tour of South Africa with low expectations, and lived down to them at first by struggling throughout the one-day series, losing all four completed matches by wide margins. A win in the one-off Twenty20 match was not much consolation - but then came the First Test, when they confounded expectations by gliding to their first victory ever in South Africa, at the tenth attempt.
That was the end of the good news for them, though: a determined South Africa bounced back, winning well at Durban, then capitalising on a timid batting display to take the series at Cape Town - a match India should never have lost after making 414 in their first innings. They were handicapped by a rare dip in form by their captain, Rahul Dravid, usually so influential, who managed only 125 runs in the Tests. Sachin Tendulkar was also quiet, with 199 Test runs and just 93 in the one-dayers, and it was left to the recalled Sourav Ganguly to top the averages and the run-scoring.
Dilip Vengsarkar, India's chairman of selectors, came in for criticism before the tour for sticking largely to the tried and tested, and there was just a hint of desperation in his explanation: "A lack of new faces and talent in domestic cricket." If India's pre-tour ambitions were limited, South Africa's certainly were not, and their confidence was justified, particularly during a one-day series in which India - whose form had disintegrated in the second half of 2006 - never got near a win. These four defeats meant they had lost 12 of their last 14 completed one-day internationals, stretching back to May 2006, after winning 22 of the previous 29.
The only downside for South Africa leading into the Tests was the form of their captain, Graeme Smith, who managed just a single from 12 deliveries in the first three one-day games, falling to Zaheer Khan each time. Actually, it wasn't just Smith who struggled. Had South Africa not won so easily more concern might have been shown about the form of the top-order batsmen. Smith, Herschelle Gibbs and Jacques Kallis were all rested from domestic cricket leading up to the First Test, leaving all three without a single first-class innings when it started.
Perhaps the selectors' over-confidence was understandable, but they paid a heavy price. India stunned everybody, maybe even themselves, with a performance of such power and intensity that Sunil Gavaskar was moved to describe the 123-run victory at the Wanderers as "one of India's best ever". Sreesanth, India's quirky fast bowler, provided the fire that unexpectedly burnt South Africa, backing up his aggression with an exceptionally good technique, which produced a bolt-upright seam time and again, enabling him to extract maximum movement from the pitch and through the air. A variety of oddball acts, including kissing a Tarot card before an over and randomly hurling abuse at a batsman for no obvious reason, made him a crowd favourite in the Merv Hughes/Andre Nel love-hate mould, although his ability to match Nel for frothing volatility made the purists lower their eyes, or at least curl their toes.
In South Africa the reaction to the First Test defeat was, predictably, unsympathetic. Smith scowled his way through a press conference before the Second Test, insisting that, while he and his team were happy to accept legitimate criticism, "some of the things that have been written about us are absolute rubbish". Their collective mood had also been darkened before the First Test by the sudden retirement of Nicky Boje, who was so infuriated by the assertion of Haroon Lorgat, the convenor of selectors, that "there are no quality spinners in South Africa", that he immediately ended his international career after 43 Tests and exactly 100 wickets. Boje's withdrawal eventually led to a first Test cap for the workmanlike Paul Harris, a leftarm spinner born in Zimbabwe but now playing in Pretoria. He accepted his Test call-up with alacrity, even though it was a risky move, as it prevented him from plying his trade for Warwickshire as a Kolpak player.
Harris joined an attack whose stand-out performer, at a time when some had feared for his future, was Shaun Pollock. He gave nothing away, going for a shade above two an over, and ended up on top of the averages: his 13 wickets at 16.00 included his 400th in Tests. He also scored handy runs, especially a crucial 37 at a nervy time in the Third Test, and was deservedly named Man of the Series in both the Tests and one-dayers.
All the criticism was forgiven and forgotten after the Second and Third Tests, both exciting and close-run encounters eventually won by South Africa, who became only the eighth side to win a three-Test series after dropping the first match. And while South Africans breathed several deep sighs of relief, the Indians were left to reflect as much on their own inability to seize the moment as on the quality of their opponents' cricket.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Rest of South Africa v Indians at Benoni, Nov 16, 2006
Tour Match: Rest of South Africa v Indians at Potchefstroom, Dec 7-9, 2006
Tour Match: KwaZulu-Natal Invitation XI v Indians at Durban, Dec 22-23, 2006