The rampant Aussies had won a record-breaking 16 on the trot, including the first of this series. Then they enforced the follow-on here, triggering a change of strategy that still persists. Enter Rahul and VVS. Cue minor miracle. "On that fourth morning," remembered Matthew Hayden somewhat ruefully, "we'd been so confident of preserving our winning streak that Michael Slater had produced a box of cigars, provocatively sniffing one as if to say, 'This result is so close I can smell it.' We all saw the humour, as you do when you've won 16 in a row and fully expect to extend the margin. At that point [Adam Gilchrist] had played 15 Tests in his career - and won the lot. But it just shows what can happen when you take success for granted."
West Indies may have burgled an astounding victory in the sides' first meeting in 1992 but the traffic had been one way ever since: a dozen Tests lost (including a 5-0 whipping in 1998-99) to a solitary dead-rubber triumph. Not for two and a half years, indeed, had Chris Gayle's side beaten anyone. Not since they beat England at Edgbaston in June 2000, moreover, had West Indies gained a single success of note overseas - apart from in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. This time the resolve was palpable. Shivnarine Chanderpaul (104) and Marlon Samuels (94) took them past 400 first time round, and although Gayle resisted the temptation to enforce the follow-on after Dwayne Bravo and Jermaine Taylor had bundled the hosts out for 195, South Africa fell well short of the eventual target of 389. They would recover to take the series, but for four days by the sea, the sun shone again for West Indies, however fleetingly.
If every dog truly can have his day, South Africa's first win in England owed its most profound debt to just such happy defiance of the fates. Bruce Mitchell's unbeaten 164 (then the highest score for South Africa at HQ) and Jock Cameron's furious hitting (90 in 105 minutes) were vital but the matchwinner was the gloriously named Xenophon Constantine Balaskas, a legspinning allrounder of Greek origin nicknamed "Saxophone", whose nine scalps constituted more than 40% of his final Test tally. He may have top-scored in England's second innings (38 out of 151) but Herbert Sutcliffe could have wished for a sweeter way to finish his lustrous Test career.
Has there ever been a more complete role reversal between Tests? Undefeated in a series at home since 2004-05, India had sauntered home in the opener against England by nine wickets; here they were outspun, improbably, by Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann (who shared 19 wickets) and battered by arguably Kevin Pietersen's greatest innings for England, 186 off 233 balls. Rarely has risk reaped its own reward with such self-affirming audacity.
Sabina Park - where even angels feared to tread, especially when the opposing attack includes Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop and Patrick Patterson. West Indies were in their late pomp, making this, their first loss to England in 30 matches and their first in Jamaica since 1955, a genuine gobsmacker. Allan Lamb's gritty first-innings 132 was decisive - no other batsman made half that many and there was only one other half-century - but sentimentalists were no less charmed by that unquenchable bon viveur Wayne "Ned" Larkins: playing his first Test since August 1981, he made 46 and hit the winning runs. Walt Disney would have rejected such a fairytale as too far-fetched.
Until the 1960s, any defeat for Australia by anyone but England was unthinkable (and the latter were duffed up most of the time, most recently 4-1 in 1950-51). Furthermore, warranted Neil Harvey, "it was thought that the overall standard of [South African] cricket didn't warrant an Australian tour. Even a few weeks before [it began] there was a clamour that the trip should be cancelled." South Africa had hitherto beaten the Aussies just once in 30 attempts, and that was back in 1910-11, but offspinner Hugh "Toey" Tayfield's 13 wickets were too much for Lindsay Hassett's side, even after the hosts had secured a narrow first-innings lead against an attack ravaged by injuries to two seamers. Undaunted by Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, Russell Endean's unbeaten 162 was pretty handy too.
In the same series, Australia regained the lead with a thumping innings win in Sydney then dominated the next Test, in Adelaide, but failed to seal the deal. Even so, nobody fancied South Africa's chances of an equaliser when the teams returned to the MCG in February. After the first innings had been completed Australia led by 85 (520 to 435) only to bow out for 209 second time round, humbled by Eddie Fuller's pace as much as they were by Tayfield's guile. When four fell for 191 and Roy McLean offered a clear chance first ball, the butterflies were flapping wildly, but McLean (76 not out) survived to dominate an unbroken stand of 106 with Headley Keith and the spoils in the series, incredibly, were shared.
It wasn't merely that this was Pakistan's first British expedition, that they had only been playing Tests for two years, that they had been dismissed as "rabbits" by their own manager, or that the Quaid-e-Azam trophy was only a season old, let alone that England were the planet's finest. Skittled for 87 in the opening draw at Lord's (rain prevented play until 3.45 on day four), swamped by an innings at Trent Bridge and shedding 14 men for 115 in another sodden stalemate at Old Trafford, Abdul Kardar's team arrived in Kennington with the odds stacked against them towering higher than the gasholders. With a six-for in each innings on a pig of a pitch, Fazal Mahmood, a policeman wielding a devilish cutter, did most of the scoffing. Served England right for resting Trevor Bailey and Alec Bedser, but Kardar's reflections rang true: "With this victory, we had confirmed our status as a Test-playing nation."
This was less about form - neither side was remotely in it - than context. Whitewashed by West Indies that summer, England had gone an unprecedented 13 Tests since their most recent victory, including an eight-wicket drubbing in the first chapter of this series - ending India's own barren run of 30 - when they were bamboozled by the meteoric legbreaks of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and - as they saw it - dubious umpiring. Now throw in the political situation in India: a few hours after their arrival for the start of the tour in Delhi, the players awoke to the news of the assassination of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and were forced to seek refuge in Colombo; riots ensued across India, killing some 2500. Then, on the eve of the series, Sir Percy Norris, the cricket-adoring Deputy High Commissioner who had held a reception for the party the previous evening, was also murdered. Surely, given the circumstances, that horrendous run could only continue.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book is Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport