Test matches (3): South Africa 1, India 1 One-day internationals (5): South Africa 3, India 2 Twenty20 international (1): South Africa 0, India 1
A hard-fought, often intense and frequently enthralling series, both in the Tests and one-dayers, left a mutual sense of satisfaction. Supporters and neutral observers were allowed to say so in public, although pride precluded the players on either side from admitting as much.
The Test series was shared; India won what amounted to an exhibition Twenty20 game; and South Africa shaded the 50-over series. But, shamelessly to use the greatest cliche´, the game itself was the biggest winner. The popularity of the Ashes gives Englishmen and Australians a distorted view of the health of Test cricket. The reality for the rest of the world is that it is clinging to life by the slenderest of threads, and that thread could well snap should India fall down the rankings and become mediocre again. The plutocrats at the Indian board would quickly divert their allegiance and return to the monotonous stream of more lucrative limited-overs games that India used to play; Test cricket would, once again, be relegated to the status of "unavoidable chore".
Gary Kirsten's success as India's head coach could be measured in many ways, but the most important, for the rest of the world, was to change the way the Indian players approached the concept of "team" - and to guide them from a Test ranking of fourth when he was appointed to No. 1.
Nonetheless, belief in India's durability - not to mention the long-term health of Test cricket - would have suffered a crushing blow if the tourists had been hammered in South Africa, as they had been on previous tours. Even though they had competed strongly in England and Australia, sceptics believed that South Africa, with its bouncy tracks and bouncer-happy fast bowlers, would be unconquerable for India. It was their final frontier.
Kirsten's ability to communicate with his bosses in their unique diplo-speak resulted in his arriving in Cape Town eight days before the First Test with most of the squad, while a virtual shadow team finished a one-day series against New Zealand back home. There were no warm-up fixtures scheduled, but Kirsten's plan was for each of the specialist batsmen to hit "somewhere between two and three thousand balls each on South African soil before the First Test".
It was all so well planned. How could anything possibly go wrong? Kirsten even threw in a bit of extra incentive in the form of a declaration that the team could justifiably call itself "one of India's greatest" if they won.
But they were hammered in the First Test at Centurion, even though Sachin Tendulkar made his 50th Test century. Afterwards, Kirsten's long-time friend and assistant, Paddy Upton, spoke of his theory that the Indian collective psyche precluded its sports teams from producing their best performances unless they were in retaliation. Like the nation's army, Upton concluded, India's sportsmen were generally very laid-back until provoked. But the backlash could be fierce. It sounded desperately optimistic, given the nature of the defeat as much as the size of it, but it was remarkably prophetic, as India bounced back to square the series at Durban, despite an unpromising start.
The first four days of the decider at Cape Town, where Tendulkar produced century No. 51, were rip-snortingly good. Both sides looked like winning at various stages, before they sagged back into their corners on the fifth day and settled for the draw.
There was much talk afterwards about the need for longer series between the two countries, and Cricket South Africa duly announced that future series would consist of at least four Tests. They did not, however, add the rider "… provided India agree to it when the time comes". After all, CSA stated before the series that they would be making use of the Decision Review System, only to back down, tails embarrassingly curled between legs, when the Indian board objected. Sachin Tendulkar knows he prospers more than most from umpiring decisions made in the world of human error rather than technology.
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