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December 18, 2006
If someone had suggested on Friday morning that India would win this game by 123 runs, 12 minutes before lunch on the fourth day, they might have been escorted by men in white coats to a padded cell. This was after all a team that had been annihilated in the one-day series, and one branded a disgrace by the media back home.
A sense of perspective has never been a quality that India's cricket fraternity has possessed. Amid the avalanche of criticism following repeated one-day lapses, it was forgotten that this side had dominated its last Test series in the Caribbean, with Rahul Dravid's peerless batting paving the way for a victory inside three days at Sabina Park.
This though ranks far above even a first series win in West Indies in 35 years. In nine previous Tests in South Africa, victory had been scented only once, at the Wanderers in 1996-97, but inclement weather and a superb partnership between Daryll Cullinan and Lance Klusener scotched those hopes. This triumph was every bit as emphatic as the margin suggests, and only a comparatively listless bowling display this morning allowed South Africa to get as close as they did.
Down the years, India's great Test victories have been set up by stellar individual performances. If it was Bhagwat Chandrasekhar's 6 for 38 at The Oval, it was Dravid's 148 at Headingley. And just as Dravid's 233 and 72 not out inspired success in Adelaide, so Virender Sehwag's blistering 309 did at Multan. There were other supporting acts in each of those games, but it was easy enough to isolate the standout performer.
It wouldn't be incorrect to say that Sreesanth's splendid bowling - 8 for 99 from 35 overs - led the way here, but in a match where run-making was never easy, there were other contributions just as priceless. Sourav Ganguly's unbeaten 51 held the lower order together in the first innings, while VVS Laxman was a cut above every other batsman in the game while making 73 in the second. But neither could have done it alone. VRV Singh's belligerent cameo in the first innings helped engineer a momentum shift, while Zaheer Khan's 70-run partnership with Laxman took a challenging target into the realms of the near-impossible.
Best of all, India won by making a mockery of pre-series predictions that suggested South Africa would be far superior on a bouncy pitch. Those that have watched this group of batsmen down the years wouldn't have been surprised that they out-batted South Africa, but the manner in which Sreesanth, Zaheer and VRV Singh outbowled the opposition quintet shocked just about everyone.
Going into the game, India's trio had 49 Test caps between them, less than half what Shaun Pollock had (102). Yet, as Graeme Smith admitted later, it was Sreesanth who was the game's premier bowler, getting the ball to swing and seam off a near-perfect line. Zaheer wasn't too far behind, bowling with far more verve than his final figures suggest. There was also unbridled aggression from Sreesanth. It eventually got him into trouble with the match referee, but it was wonderful to see a young man stare down the opposition and bait experienced pros into crucial mistakes.
And when the tyros tired, there was always Anil Kumble to call on, and the wickets of Shaun Pollock and Ashwell Prince this morning once again illustrated just why he's quite simply the greatest bowler that India has ever produced. When you look back at Adelaide, Multan and now the Wanderers, he's the thread that binds them all, a committed team man with a work ethic and hunger for success that's second to none.
Having men like that around clearly also helped with the spirit in the side. A losing team is seldom a happy one, but the manner in which they regrouped for the Tests was just magnificent. Those who flew out after the one-day series slotted in seamlessly, and though sections of the media dug very hard for signs of intrigue, the main protagonists steadfastly kept their focus on what mattered. That, perhaps, was the greatest victory.
Dravid and Greg Chappell, who have had more darts thrown at them than the average board, embraced outside the dressing-room at the end, before Dravid found an Indian flag to wave up at the support in the stands. The celebrations, much like the Australian ones at Perth, are likely to last long into the night, and no one will grudge them that.
U2's Beautiful Day was wafting out through the stadium loudspeakers when Sreesanth stepped up to bowl his first over of the morning. "You're on the road, But you've got no destination ... Teach me, I know I'm not a hopeless case" go the lyrics, and nothing could have been more appropriate for a team that dug deep to unearth hope and inspiration from the wreckage of potentially soul-destroying defeats.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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