Two drawn Tests had made South Africa’s tour of Pakistan in 1997 a dead, drab and boring affair. What was expected to be a tough jostle between two teams trying to match Australia’s standards in Test cricket turned out to be a dour series. Only until Faisalabad though.

The final match of the three-match Test series proved to be one hell of a match as the Proteas lost their grip on a Test played on a surface expected to suit their game before an anti-climax saw Pakistan gift wrap the game and send South Africa a farewell present.

Played out between October 24 and 27, the Faisalabad Test will long be remembered for the manner in which Pakistan succumbed in the final innings chasing a pretty modest target.

A saviour called Gary Kirsten

Winning the toss and opting to bat first on a green-tinged wicket, South Africa lost their first three wickets with just 12 on the board as Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis unleashed some serious fury in the visitors. Gary Kirsten and skipper, Hansie Cronje, looked to resurrect the innings but Younis wasn’t done and had the skipper plumb in front to reduce them to 30/4.

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The wily leg-spinner, Mushtaq Ahmed, then came on and spun a web around the clueless Proteas middle-order batsmen. Shaun Pollock, Dave Richardson and Lance Klusener departed in the blink of an eye as South Africa were stuck in a rut at 98/7. In came Pat Symcox, supposedly in the squad for his off-spinning abilities but showcasing little of that and more of grit and temperament as a senior player and batsman.

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At the other end, amidst all the ruins, one man stood firm for the Proteas – Gary Kirsten. The solid, reliable left-hander withstood the Wasim-Waqar barrage and the tricky spell of Mushtaq Ahmed but he needed someone to support him form the other end. That is exactly what Symcox did.

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Combining icy steel composure and mentality, the duo put on a fightback, standing tall against the fearsome Pakistani bowlers to put together 124 runs. Symcox counterattacked with a slew of aggressive shots while Kirsten held the fort at one end. When Wasim Akram eventually returned to clean up Symcox on 81, South Africa had recovered by a fairly decent margin.

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Kirsten completed a deserved hundred, in five long hours, before he ran out of partners at the other end and the South Africans folded for 239.

The Proteas bowlers disappoint

This pitch was tailor-made for the South African seamers and as such, they were expected to come charging at the Pakistani batsmen. They did live up to that reputation for a while, putting the hosts in a spot of bother at 42/3 but the mojo of the Allan Donald – Shaun Pollock was missing.

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Inzamam-ul-Haq capitalised on a slightly wayward bowling and he got good company from Moin Khan. From 80/5, the duo lofted Pakistan to 224, as both of them took on the Proteas bowlers with aplomb. Aamer Sohail, fighting on with a broken finger, carried on in the same vein once the duo departed and Waqar Younis added some vital runs down the order to take Pakistan to a vital 69 run lead.

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It was contrary to what most expected. The Proteas had time and again proved their capability in bowling out the opposition quickly on grassy wickets but the Inzamam-Moin association had put them off. A 69 run lead was by no means the end of the World on a still fairly good track for batting. But the bowlers obviously had the edge.

Pakistan charge ahead with dominating bowling display

If a 69 run lead wasn’t enough, Pakistan scythed through the South African batting line-up with openers Gary Kirsten and Adam Bacher departing by the time the team score was into the 20s. McMillan and nightwatchman Pat Symcox did their best to ward off the Pakistani seamers but the former had no clue to play the guile of Mushtaq Ahmed.

The leg-spinner had McMillan back in the hut before South Africa could surge into the lead. The talented Daryll Cullinan, long touted to be a wonderful player of spin until Shane Warne found him out, was plumb in front to Mushtaq Ahmed before the South African lead had reached 30.

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Now, the visitors were under some pressure to pile on a decent target. They had lost four and were struggling to read the two spinners, Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq. When Saqlain sent a resolute Symcox back after a well-composed half-century, Pakistan were well and truly on top. Their problems compounded as a rejuvenated Waqar Younis returned to the attack.

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Younis sent back Hansie Cronje and Dave Richardson in successive balls next over and all of a sudden South Africa had gone from 140/4 to 140/7. Lance Klusener walked out and did what he does best – lambast the attack to all corners. He made 38 in 35 balls as South Africa got some late momentum to a faltering innings. They ended up with 214, way short of what they would have liked in the third innings.

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Pakistan needed 146 for victory, far from what you might seem a tough total even after considering South Africa’s pace attack and the tinge of green on the Faisalabad wicket.

The collapse on October 27, 1997 that Pakistan wouldn’t want to remember

It is said that Pat Symcox gave an inspirational talk to the players at the end of South Africa’s second innings. He instilled belief into a team that had lost all hopes of escaping back home with a draw, forget a win.

On 27th, from a circumspect, sedate start, Pakistan jumped into a hole as Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald came roaring in. The hosts had no idea what hit them but when they came to their senses, half of the side was back in the hut as Pollock picked up four wickets in seven balls.

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At 31/5, Pakistan were suddenly losing their grip on the game and the series. All of their top order batsmen were back in the hut and it was up to Moin Khan and Wasim Akram to resuscitate them and get them to that, now far off, 146.

Lunch was taken with Pakistan tottering at 79/6 – “I don’t know how they felt,” Pollock recollects, “but we couldn’t eat a thing. We all just sat, staring at the clock, willing the minutes to go by.”

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But Pat Symcox, true to his words on the previous day, delivered a crunching performance. He sent back Wasim Akram and Saqlain Mushtaq and capped off the performance with the final nail in the coffin, the wicket of Moin Khan. Pakistan were bowled out for 92 and South Africa had pulled off an absolute heist. It was an anti-choke from the Proteas, who would later burden themselves with the “choker” tag in cricket. On this day, 20 years back, though, it was Pakistan who performed a dramatic choke. They lost the match by 53 runs and with it the series. The man who delivered the most inspiring talk of the series, Pat Symcox, walked off with the Man of the Match award, more for his batting and pep talk than what he was picked for.

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