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Azhar makes Tendulkar a very happy captain

By the time South Africa came to India for their next visit, they had been playing international cricket the world over for five years and had become strong enough to defeat Pakistan and England and had proved capable of sharing two rubbers with Australia. India on the other hand had just returned from a dismal tour of England but as usual, their one crumb of comfort was that they would be hosting the South Africans. For, India's formidable home record was still intact. They were still to lose a home series after ten years.

The South Africans, in true professional fashion, were reported to have gathered information on India's strengths and weaknesses. Their methodical coach Bob Woolmer announced on arrival that the team members were mentally and physically strong to adapt and face any challenge. His confidence seemed to be justified for South Africa had yet to lose a rubber after their return to the international fold.

South Africa landed here for their first Test series in India, knowing what to expect. Their pre-tour apprehensions centered around tackling the home team on turning tracks. The fears were proved right in the Tests at Ahmedabad and Kanpur, but there was one exception the Eden Gardens pitch at Calcutta. It reminded the South African paceman of conditions back home and the result was a comprehensive defeat for the home team. But at the two other venues, India registered handsome victories to take the series. The designer tracks became a major talking point during the tour but skipper Sachin Tendulkar and coach Madan Lal justified the strategy of preparing tracks to suit their own spinners by the simple argument that every team around the world had tailor made conditions to suit their own strengths.

The South Africans, in true professional fashion, were reported to have gathered information on India's strengths and weaknesses. Their methodical coach Bob Woolmer announced on arrival that the team members were mentally and physically strong to adapt and face any challenge. His confidence seemed to be justified for South Africa had yet to lose a rubber after their return to the international fold.

Still, it must have been a new and unnerving experience for the South Africans, who have constantly built their attack around pace, to see the ball turn considerably in the pre lunch session on the opening day of a Test. Hansie Cronje, never the most diplomatic of captains, made some complaints about the quality of the wickets which did not go down well. But that was about all he could do. In any event, his case lost its weight when the South Africans succumbed meekly to Javagal Srinath and not a spin bowler while losing the first Test at Ahmedabad.

The tall Indian spearhead was at his most devastating in taking six for 21 off just 11.5 overs and bowling out the South Africans for 105. Till then it had been anybody's game. The Indians, dismissed for 223 hit back to restrict South Africa to 244. The Indians were again all out for 190 in the second innings but even the modest target of 170 proved too much for the visitors who caved in before the gale that was Srinath.

With Adams and Symcox taking eight wickets between themselves for the match, one did not have to work out just how much more damage the Indian trio of Kumble, Joshi and Hirwani would cause. They shared eight wickets the first time around and in the second, even as Srinath was scything through the South African rank and file, Kumble and Joshi shared the remaining four wickets.

A week later, however the South Africans had drawn level - and with an emphatic 329-run win at that. Everything went right for them from the moment Gary Kirsten (102) and Andrew Hudson (146) shared an opening stand of 236. The steady bowling of Venkatesh Prasad was the one solace for India. The lanky medium pacer finished with six for 104 off 35 overs. India were in deep trouble having lost seven wickets for 161 but Azharuddin (109) and Kumble (88) turned the innings around, in the process erasing a 31-year-old eighth wicket record. The two added 161 runs, surpassing the 143 runs that Farokh Engineer and Bapu Nadkarni had put on against New Zealand at Madras in 1965. The Indians ultimately got to 329 but the South Africans swiftly built upon the 99-run lead. Kirsten (133) got his second century of the match while Daryll Cullinan (153 not out) rubbed salt into the Indians' wounds. A declaration at 367 for three set India a victory target of 467. This was of course purely academic as debutant Lance Klusener shot out the Indians for 137 with a haul of eight for 64 off 21.3 overs.

The teams came to Green Park for the decider and the state of the pitch is best illustrated by the fact that Adams took six for 55 on the first day as India were all out for 237 after being 160 for two. Naturally South Africa could fare only worse. Kumble and off spinner Aashish Kapoor picked up six wickets and Srinath mowed down the middle order.

South Africa were restricted to 177 and the situation only required for the home team to build on their 60-run lead. But led by Azharuddin's unbeaten 163, the home team did much more than that and were able to declare their second innings at 400 for seven. A target of 461 was always going to be an academic exercise and with Srinath and Prasad making the initial breakthrough and with Joshi cutting through the middle order, South Africa could get no more than 180 leaving the Indians victors by the huge margin of 280 runs. It was certainly a feather in Tendulkar's cap in his first full Test series as captain. For good measure, India also won the Titan Cup one day tri series (the third team was Australia) defeating South Africa in the final.

For the South Africans it was a bitter pill to swallow and they did not take it very well. Cronje and Woolmer proved to be bad losers and made any number of uncharitable comments about the general facilities, the inadequate dressing rooms, the pitches and the umpiring. They might have had some cause for complaint, but overall, there was no denying the superiority of the Indians, who kept their formidable home record intact.