India were the first touring side to visit the Rainbow nation after they returned to the international fold following more than two decades of isolation. Of course they were, there were umpteen reasons for it. Just like the first international assignment of the new South Africa had been a three-ODI venture in India. And the first Test after return had been in the West Indies.
South African readmission was all about rectifying history.
But that did not grant the visitors more favours than necessary. They were welcomed to play their first Test in the country on a lightning-quick Kingsmead wicket.
The fury of Donald and co
On a track from which the balls flew, Alan Donald charged at the Indian batsmen with the menacing and severely underrated Brett Schulz for company. Big Brian McMillan and the promising Meyrick Pringle were there to back them up. There was no breathing space. The script was all too clear and repetitive. 1 for 18, 2 for 22, 3 for 38, 4 for 38.
It included the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar, who was run-out, becoming the first ever victim of a third umpire decision in a Test match.
Strangely, not only did the visitors manage a decent score, they also managed to secure a slim first innings lead. It was the work of one man, a lone ranger, a fighter.
After Tendulkar had been dismissed in that unfortunate fashion, the day was saved by his school-fellow Pravin Amre.
The ball swung both ways, especially after tea, and there was prodigious bounce all through. Skipper Mohammad Azharuddin was also run out after a fighting knock and Kapil Dev lasted just two balls. India slumped to 128 for 6 at the end of Day Two. The canny Protean attack had peppered Amre with bouncers all through. But he had held on. He was still there with 39.
The Indian innings looked all but over. But that evening there was encouragement from the most unexpected of quarters.
The Amre classic
Abu, an Indian businessman based in South Africa, had taken on the responsibility of supplying food to the Indian cricketers. This enthusiast was way more confident than the tourists themselves. Abu told Amre that he was sure that he would get a hundred the following day.
Whether Amre was reassured by the words of this fan is not clear. What is certain is that the South African attack did not relent the following day. Donald snapped up Manoj Prabhakar early, and Amre found runs difficult to come by. For a long period, he remained scoreless as McMillan sent down maiden after maiden. The bowlers gave nothing away, but perhaps they erred by bowling too many balls that did not need to be played. The Indians were perennially suspect against the short ball, but Amre showed excellent temperament in leaving them alone.
In another gutsy fighter, Kiran More, the debutant found the ideal partner. The diminutive Indian ’keeper put his head down and refused to budge.
Things slowly turned India’s way. Schultz hobbled off with a strained hamstring and the other bowlers started to tire. And now Amre began to dazzle with the full array of his strokes, driving the balls pitched up and pulling the short ones. He fast progressed to one of the most impressive hundreds.
At 98, he faced Omar Henry, the veteran left-arm spinner, the first coloured man to play for South Africa. Well, if one is willing to accept the case of Charlie Llewellyn, Henry was perhaps the second.
Amre waltzed down and lofted the left-armer straight back over his head. Umpire Steve Bucknor had to display remarkable reflexes to get his head out of the way and the century was brought up in style.
That was Amre’s way of easing the pressure. When he hit a magnificent unbeaten eighty to guide India to a win in the final ODI of the series, he had overcome the pressure of losing a spate of wickets with a lofted drive over the head of Craig Matthews.
On his reaching his landmark, a number of spectators ran out into the ground to congratulate the valiant batsman. First and foremost among them was the delighted Abu.
The 103 that the knock amounted to was scored over six and a quarter hours. A gem of an innings.
The match was drawn. Thus, India avoided defeat in the first Test of the series in South Africa. They would have to wait three more tours to repeat that.
The knock led match referee Clive Lloyd to voice that Amre was one of the long lines of great Indian batsmen which included Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath.
A Promising career didn’t go the right way
Sadly, the career of this batsman was limited to 11 Tests. He never quite got the opportunity even to fail sufficiently to furnish proper reasons to the selectors for the omission. Held back in the lower middle order, he came in mostly when there had been plenty of runs piled on by the likes of Navjot Sidhu, Tendulkar, his other schoolmate Vinod Kambli and captain Mohammad Azharuddin. The onus on him was to get a quick score without settling down. And he did that, managing 78, 57 and 52 not out in consecutive innings against England. However, the following series, with scores of 21, 15 not out and 21, was enough to allow the wise men to axe him forever.
His career figures read 425 runs at an average of 42.50. Just 10 completed innings. That was enough for selectors to drop a man who scored a magnificent century against a supreme bowling attack on bouncy wicket appended by swinging conditions.
But such are the ways of Indian cricket.
India were greeted by the Durban wicket during the 1996-97 tour. They lost by 328 runs, managing 100 and 66 in the two innings. The team scoring less than Amre had managed in both the innings. By then, however, Amre was no longer in the scheme of things.
Thankfully this time India play their first Test at Newlands. And a parched Newlands at that, without the necessary rain to spice up the wicket for the fast men. They are not even playing a Test at Durban.
However, South Africa is a tough place to bat. The conditions are difficult, the bowling is always relentless. Even at Newlands, Centurion and Wanderers, especially at Wanderers, India does need the Amre like grit and guts to compete. That is a very, very rare commodity.