While Australia and West Indies embarked on a series grandiosely entitled The Decider, a Test series of some significance was being played in India.
The Indians had not lost a home series since 1986-87, and had won ten out of 14 Tests at home since 1992-93, the most recent being an emphatic win over Australia in a one-off match at Delhi. South Africa, meanwhile, had not lost any series, or a one-off, since their inaugural Test on rejoining the cricketing world, at Bridgetown in April 1992. They had played enough one-day cricket on the subcontinent not to worry unduly about the conditions. But they soon discovered that Tests were different: they lost the series 2-1, sandwiching a win in Calcutta between defeats in Ahmedabad and Kanpur.
Their cause was not helped by their build-up. Since the first week of 1996, South Africa had played 29 one-day internationals - and won 25. But when they arrived, many of their players had played no first-class cricket in ten months. It was a surprise that the selectors did not freshen up the squad who had played so well in one-day cricket. But three of their young discoveries, Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis and (at first) Paul Adams, were all injured. India, in contrast, were starting to gel, having improved during their tour of England. The upshot was an exciting series, uneven in quality, which could have gone either way until the second-last day.
The Indians had the bonus of a late flowering from Mohammad Azharuddin. Relieved of the captaincy, he found sublime batting form: his hundred off 74 balls in Calcutta was extraordinary; his unbeaten 163 in Kanpur clinched the series, Javagal Srinath, the First Test match-winner, and Venkatesh Prasad were an effective new-ball pair, while Anil Kumble had an outstanding series in an unexpected role. Showing a straight bat and good sense, he played vital innings in each Test, and there was no diminution either in his powers as a brisk-paced bowler of leg-spin and top-spin. Although his figures were not sensational, the South Africans never mastered him.
South Africa's batting let them down when conditions were even slightly dubious. The contrast between their performance in Calcutta and the other two Tests was marked. Although Kirsten, Cullinan and Hudson all finished with impressive averages, they made most of their runs in Calcutta, where Kirsten scored twin hundreds. Only the captain, Hansie Cronje, played innings of substance in both Ahmedabad and Kanpur. The loss of fast bowler Allan Donald with a heel injury during the Second Test was a critical blow. He had looked easily the best bowler on either side; although Lance Klusener had the remarkable figures of eight for 64 in the second innings of his debut Test, he lacked Donald's consistency. The left-arm wrist-spinner, Adams, took 14 wickets at 20.28 with a mixture of devastating and dreadful deliveries.
The South Africans were unhappy with conditions in both Ahmedabad and Kanpur, considering Ahmedabad, especially, an unsuitable Test venue - Cronje said the pitch was unsatisfactory and condemned the absence of suitable practice facilities.
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