The year 1996 was a completely different world. It was a time when grass courts were fast, photographers shot on reel, computers were yet to beat chess grandmasters, a time when the Indian cricket team developed cold feet the moment they left the subcontinent. Fourteen years and a day before one of their most special wins away from home, at the same venue, in similar conditions, India put in perhaps their worst performance with the bat: bowled out for 100 and 66, lasting 73.2 overs in two innings put. Durban 1996 to Durban 2010 shows how far this team has come.
Allan Donald, who took nine wickets in that match and left India rattled, says the single biggest difference he sees in the team is the mental strength. And Donald could spot a weak opponent from a mile. "One thing that stands out for me vis- -vis that team is that they haven't taken a backward step," he says. "They have shown a lot more character than they ever have away from home. I always looked forward to playing India away from home because I just didn't think they had enough fight, but they have shown it here. Character, mental toughness."
Talking to some of the Indian players from that team shows how unimaginably different things were back then. WV Raman, who just about managed to avoid a pair against Donald and Shaun Pollock in 1996, played in a world when the meek were supposed to inherit the earth. "Going into the series the batsmen were told to leave as much as possible outside the off stump," Raman remembers. "The team management had strictly told us not to hook or pull. I don't see how you can avoid that against the short-pitched bowling. That probably was one reason we fared badly. Now, that is not the case. Players are free to play their natural game.
"Take this second Test, when South Africa were 62 for no loss in no time chasing the target, our bowlers were relentless. Sreesanth went after Graeme Smith, and Smith fell for the bait and was egotistic enough to be influenced. Back in 1996, [Javagal] Srinath never exchanged any words. [Venkatesh] Prasad, you can forget it. That is the change in attitude and approach of the players then and now. That sums up the difference between the teams."
It is not as if sledging or hooking has won India away Tests, but it shows they have the confidence to stand up to aggressive teams. Donald has seen earlier Indian teams taking backward steps. On the 1992 tour, in the Port Elizabeth Test, "you could see that they just didn't fancy it. We had [Brett] Schultz and me bowling on a wicket that was nice and bouncy, and it seemed like they didn't like it at all. They capitulated in the second innings [except for Kapil Dev]. Not here. In the years gone by, green wicket, put into bat, it would have been a totally different story. Here they kept fighting, kept hanging in there. And then they bowled like champions."
Back in 1996, the bowlers started off well, bowling the hosts out for 235, but that wasn't a result of any plan. "I had no planning as a bowler in 1996," Prasad, who took a 10-for in Durban 1996, says. "We didn't have any videos, so whatever we watched of the opponents playing, we absorbed that. I would always, whichever game it was, sit in my room, draw an image of the field in my notebook and set down the field placements according to my strengths. So I was on my own. I would not like to blame the coaches then because even they were not exposed to these new innovations."
"Nowadays our top six have a phenomenal experience, and they have been together as a unit for a long time. So there is somebody to stand up if everybody else fails. Back in 1996 the dressing room was not such a positive place" WV Raman on the change
Nor did the likes of Prasad or Srinath have any support on or off the field. "The opposition were trained to perform their role to the best of their ability and they had physical trainers," Prasad says. "We didn't have one. Normally, what we used to do was run a lap, and stretch. We didn't have the professional physio that the other teams had. Our support staff was not well equipped and all that mattered. There's always going to be some niggle or the other and you cannot give your 100%. It's because that niggle tends to develop even into an injury sometimes, and therefore you were always hesitant to give your 100%. It affects your mindset. And add to that the backing from the board in terms of contracts, all that also mattered."
On the field they lacked the third bowler. "Back then, Srinath and I missed the support bowler," Prasad says. "Anil [Kumble] only later got the knack, but in 1996 he was playing more of a supporting role to create pressure. It was Srinath and I who used to get the wickets. I had got a lot of wickets because Srinath used to make things difficult for the batsmen. In this team, everyone is capable of getting wickets, capable of changing the course of the match."
To Donald, Zaheer Khan is the big difference in the bowling line-up. "Having this guy lifts everybody else. He brings another dimension to the attack. He is skilful, and every one bowls around him."
Another important point Donald makes is the catching. "They have caught well, fantastically well," he says. "The catching just stood out. Those three magnificent catches in the first innings swung the game."
Raman talks of the batting line-up. "I still remember the delivery that Allan Donald bowled Sachin Tendulkar with in the first Innings," Raman says. "Tendulkar was not offering any shot, covering his off stump but the ball came back a long way and clipped the off bail. Of course, the batsmen were still working out the lengths, which were so different to back home. Nowadays our top six have a phenomenal experience, and they have been together as a unit for a long time. So there is somebody to stand up if everybody else fails. Back in 1996 the dressing room was not such a positive place."
It was the batting that convinced Donald that India wouldn't roll over and die this time around. "The response in Centurion in the second innings, following on, scoring 450-plus, just showed to me that India were not going to take a backward step. They were going to keep fighting."
Raman added: "The other paradigm shift is that they only look at the positive aspects of the day's game. Back then they would sit and brood about why something went wrong. They did not work on what better could be done tomorrow, which probably needed more attention."
It has taken them 14 years to erase the horrible memory, but when India come to Durban for another Boxing Day Test, people will have something else to talk about. About a team that was going to keep fighting.