Ultimately, this tour of India proved too much for a South African side with only four players who had experience of local conditions. They arrived with a new coach in Ray Jennings, who threatened to give some of his squad "a good kick up the backside", but he also showed he could put a caring arm round those who needed it.
He combined this philosophy of "love and care" with an attritional strategy, and it worked for eight days, until Harbhajan Singh twirled his arm like a dervish to gift-wrap an Indian win at Eden Gardens. A side in transition, and wrestling with the intricacies of racial balance, was finally overpowered by one still smarting after losing to Australia a month earlier. Despite preparation that involved training in specially recreated shirtsoaking humidity, and playing on ripped-up pitches with scuffed-up balls, not to mention 4.30 a.m. wake-up calls, South Africa never suggested they had the ambition or nerve to push for victory. The safety-first approach was exemplified by Andrew Hall, a normally ebullient strokeplayer who outbarnacled Trevor Bailey as South Africa crawled to 510 in the First Test at Kanpur. The lack of aggressive intent was all the more perplexing given that among India's batsmen only Virender Sehwag was in form, after the abysmal collapses which coloured the defeats by Australia.
India did themselves no favours by selecting only one specialist pace bowler on a snooze-inducing Kanpur pitch, but the balance was righted in Kolkata where Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan bowled beautifully in tandem to supplement the efforts of Harbhajan. On the batting front, there were positives in the encouraging form of Gautam Gambhir, and the runs made by Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, despite neither being anywhere near their best.
With Graeme Smith playing only one substantial innings, it was left to Jacques Kallis to shepherd a callow batting line-up. The likes of Zander de Bruyn and Hashim Amla showed glimpses of promise in trying conditions, and de Bruyn's canny medium-pace also gave South Africa an extra bowler, though there was a distressing sameness to an attack without a quality spinner.
Nicky Boje had spun them to a massive victory in Bangalore four and a half years earlier, but both he and Herschelle Gibbs declined the trip this time, fearing interrogation by Delhi police over their alleged roles in the match-fixing scandal which disfigured that tour. Their absence stoked the ire of Jennings. "It doesn't help to hide," he said. "If they were involved in the things they are accused of, they must face the music so the air can be cleared once and for all." But this did not annoy him as much as the axing of Mark Boucher, a veteran of 76 Tests, in favour of Thami Tsolekile, who appeared out of his depth on surfaces with erratic bounce and turn.
Still, the coach with a penchant for the headline quote nearly coaxed a stalemate from his wards, but his best-laid plans were thwarted by the sheer brilliance of Sehwag and especially Harbhajan, who continued his happy knack of running through sides on the brown, brown grass of home.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Indian Board President's XI v South Africans at Jaipur, Nov 14-16, 2004