My grandfather, a fanatical cricket fan, would often speak of India’s tour to Pakistan in 1982-83 with the sort of pain you reserve for funerals. India lost the six-match series 3-0 but there was a reason why that particular tour stood out for him: that was the first time he had watched cricket live on TV and the sight of Imran Khan, in all his pomp, tearing through the Indian batting like a red-hot knife through butter was a sight he would never forget.
Mention the series to him and he would recollect, with remarkable detail, how every Indian wicket fell. His most vivid memory was the ball, that ball in Karachi, which Imran conjured to castle Gundappa Viswanath in the second Test during his sensational spell of 8-60. Viswanath shouldered arms to a ball that appeared to be heading to first slip but the astonishingly sharp change of angle – which people later termed reverse-swing – meant that the ball rattled the stumps, shocking and then scarring my grand-dad forever.
While grand-dad had watched grainy monochrome Doordarshan footage, often interrupted by the news or other programming, my first brush with televised cricket came with better picture quality. I remember watching highlights of India’s tour to the West Indies in 1989 – batsman after batsman getting hit amid some technical perfection from Sanjay Manjrekar – and also several parts of India’s trip to Australia in 1991-92.
However, it wasn’t until 1996, when India went to South Africa, that I remember watching every ball of every Test of a series mixed with pre-game shows, mid-innings discussions, wicket packages and post-game analysis (I had watched only a few bits of India’s series in England because of some cable operator issue in Bangalore) . It was Tendulkar’s first away series as captain and, for once, we could rely on the ESPN feed throughout the day.
Which brings me to Durban, a most unforgettable shellacking at the hands of a ferocious fast bowler (Allan Donald) on a green, spicy pitch. All out for 100 and 66. Done in three days. I knew the Indian team were poor travelers but here I saw them torn apart, by bowlers on the pitch and by analysts off it. I saw Javagal Srinath’s doleful expressions with every catch dropped in the slips, Vikram’s Rathour’s astonishing lack of footwork and Tendulkar’s ‘we didn’t apply ourselves’ spiel after every game. I saw several replays of all this. And I also saw the commentators dissecting every move. I’m sure it made a deep psychological dent.
It was all quite gory. It’s tough to forget the incutter of the series, Donald producing a bullet that got through the little gap between Tendulkar’s bat and pad, following up with the aeroplane dance; Azharuddin swishing wildly, Dravid leaving ball after ball, often with the exaggerated technique that seemed to require more skill than actually making runs.
Amid all this was Trevor Quirk, Alan Wilkins, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri, flaying the team for their shoddy performance. Not to forget Kishore Bhimani emphatically spewing venom. We heard about the dysfunctional nature of the system, the structural flaws in our domestic set-up, the lack of steel. And we heard all this over and over again.
Fourteen years down the road, we’ve no doubt come a long, long way. Hammered in the first Test and put into bat on a green pitch, against a potent pace attack, which includes arguably the best bowler in the world, India have responded in a most inspiring fashion. Deprived of any warm-up games, they’ve adjusted to the conditions and shown the kind of character that one never saw in the ‘90s.
In the intervening period, they’ve produced some outstanding slip fielders – it was fitting that Dravid became the first to take 200 catches during the course of this game; a pool of fast bowlers – never forget that our third seamer in Durban ’96 was David Johnson; an opening pair which will go down as the best in Indian history – always remember that our opening pair in that game were Rathour and WV Raman; a lower order capable of winning games with the bat; a captain who will probably go down as the best in Indian cricket history, and most important of all, a never-say-die spirit against all odds.
Sure, this wasn’t our first major win abroad. Sure, we’ve had Headingley, Jamaica, Wanderers, Trent Bridge, Perth and Galle. Sure it’s been a gradual progression.
But Durban is special. Immensely special. For 15-year-olds celebrating India’s win today just remember how lucky you are. It was not always thus.