India vs South Africa: Of cherished memories, and a travesty
The term 'friendship series' will most likely evoke memories of India-Pakistan contests in Toronto in the late 1990s, but a few years before that, South Africa's series with India upon re-admittance to international cricket after the Apartheid years was called that too.
1992-93: Grainy Doordarshan footage and a man they called White Lightning. The term 'friendship series' will most likely evoke memories of India-Pakistan contests in Toronto in the late 1990s, but a few years before that, South Africa's series with India upon re-admittance to international cricket after the Apartheid years was called that too. In a series in which three of the four Tests ended in draws, Allan Donald showed the rest of the world what they had been missing with a fast-and-furious performance in the third Test to give South Africa the series. Donald's bowling and the historic occasion are chief among the mostly hazy memories of that tour.
1996-97: Has any one series delivered such extremes of humiliation, magic and promise, following swiftly one after the other? When Venkatesh Prasad took a five-wicket haul and South Africa were bowled out for 235 at Kingsmead, it seemed as if India had finally shed their 'away' blues, but the illusion lasted all of one day, as Donald once again breathed fire. You thought it couldn't get worse than 100 all out in the first innings, only for the batsmen to succumb to a dismal 66 all out in the second innings. But in Newlands in the next match, even though another heavy defeat, Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin drove, flicked, cut and pulled gloom away with just over a session's worth of - for lack of a better word - batting. Azhar was run-out, Tendulkar was the last man dismissed with Adam Bacher taking a stunning one-handed catch falling backwards. It seemed the only possible way the two could have got out.
And then there was Rahul Dravid at the Wanderers. Finally breaking through for the first of his 36 Test hundreds, and one that should have come in a winning cause, if the weather had held true, with India needing only two wickets to seal what would have been a first win on South African soil. They would have to wait another decade to eventually achieve it.
2001: Virender Sehwag arrived in Test cricket with two successive bangs, the second not of his doing. First up, there was a century on debut and a partnership with Tendulkar. In the second Test, Sehwag earned a one-match ban from Mike Denness for allegedly showing dissent at the umpire's decision while batting and trying to intimidate the umpire by charging while appealing. Denness also charged Tendulkar with altering the state of the ball, leading to national outrage. The Denness affair, as it came to be called, resulted in the BCCI and CSA cocking a snook at the ICC and playing in the third Test that was declared unofficial because the BCCI wanted Denness stood down. It was one of the early instances of muscle-flexing by the BCCI and Malcolm Speed, then the ICC chief executive, notes in his conclusion to the description of a saga that lasted months afterwards that Jagmohan Dalmiya (then the BCCI President) "showed that he could still pull the strings at Board meetings when it counted".
In all the hullaballoo over Tendulkar's 200th Test, what might have been if the third match was counted as an official one, and Tendulkar had 199, rather than 198 to his name?
2006-07: Most people remember the tour for S Sreesanth's antics after hitting Andre Nel for six and a dream spell that gave India a win and a lead in the three-match series. But it was also the tour in which Sourav Ganguly made an international comeback. Ganguly was to produce some of his best Test match batting in the two years after that until his retirement.
2010-11: The only time India didn't lose to South Africa in South Africa produced the most compelling and qualitatively brilliant cricket. A maiden double-hundred for Jacques Kallis which AB de Villiers, his batting partner, celebrated with much more gusto than the man himself was followed by masterpieces in two successive Tests. VVS Laxman stood serene in Durban, getting almost as many runs in two innings himself as the Indian team had back in 1996 at the same venue. And Tendulkar then did battle with Dale Steyn in the third Test. It took a bit of luck allied with great batting skill to survive that Steyn spell - with the ball whizzing out of his hands, swinging late and doing things that seemed unreal even on replays.
Why is the BCCI seemingly bent on treating India's upcoming tour of South Africa with all the affection stepmothers are shown to have in television soaps? Your guess is as good as mine. But the act robs fans. Each of India's previous tours to the country have been rich with sporting feats, with historic occasions. The current South African team is the best on the planet. The Indian team has an exciting nucleus of younger stars who seem capable of continuing the rise up from the 0-8 that England and Australia inflicted. A strong India A side was sent, and acquitted itself very creditably in admittedly not-so-challenging conditions. To have anything less than three Tests would be a travesty.
Even on tours that have been dismal from an Indian point of view, there have been moments and performances to treasure. A shortened tour, or no tour, might serve some purpose in power-brokering, politicking circles. But what it actually does is take away the chance to form cherished memories.