India’s epic win at the Wanderers

It was an exhilarating display of swing bowling by Santhakumaran Sreesanth. It was also a picture-perfect performance, so correct were the wrist and seam positions. It was a day when everything fell in place for the moody paceman.

India's fast bowler Santhakumaran Sreesanth celebrates after dismissing Graeme Smith of South Africa at the Wanderers. Sreesanth's run-up was rhythmic, his release smooth and the impact devastating.   -  AP

India's Sourav Ganguly impressed with a 51 in his comeback Test at the Wanderers.   -  AP

The sun was out and the breeze across Sedgars Park soothed one’s senses. The year was 2006, and the languorous town of Potchefstroom was finally witnessing some action. India were taking on Rest of South Africa in a tour game.

Cricket on view was engaging. Santhakumaran Sreesanth ran in to bowl and there was an air of expectation.

Rahul Dravid walked up and took his seat next to video analyst S. Ramakrishnan for a closer view of the proceedings. The press box was only a few feet away.

The Indian captain, sitting out of the game, was not happy with what he saw. Sreesanth was trying out different actions, often altering his run-up, and Dravid seemed annoyed.

India had been battered in the ODI series that preceded the Tests. And the first Test on the fast and bouncy Wanderers pitch loomed. Few gave India a chance.

Sreesanth figured prominently in the Indian plans along with Zaheer Khan. But then, Dravid indicated to the media that he needed a more disciplined Sreesanth. Would the Kerala paceman be picked for the first Test?

Dravid went by his gut feeling and Sreesanth was in the playing XI for the Test at the Wanderers. The Indian skipper also bravely elected to bat. He was sending a signal to the South African camp – the Indian batsmen were not going to be intimidated by the South African pacemen.

There was lift and seam movement for the South African bowlers. Under the circumstances, India’s first innings total of 249 was a creditable effort. Sourav Ganguly, his back-lift straighter and head still, impressed with his 51 in comeback Test.

Dravid then tossed the ball to Sreesanth. What followed was an exhilarating display of swing bowling. It was also a picture-perfect performance, so correct were the wrist and seam positions. It was a day when everything fell in place for the moody paceman.

Sreesanth’s run-up was rhythmic, his release smooth and the impact devastating. He fired out five batsmen and South Africa were bundled out for 84 in 25.1 overs. The crowd in the arena seemed shell-shocked.

The inspired Sreesanth took out Greame Smith with a delivery that swung into the left-hander. Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis succumbed to lovely late outswingers. Sreesanth was generating pace, the teasing line invited a drive and the movement did the rest.

The Kookaburra ball does most in the initial overs and Sreesanth, with the wily left-armer, Zaheer, complementing him from the other end, had to strike early. In fact, they made deep inroads.

Sreesanth was not finished yet. He bowled Mark Boucher after the batsman inner-edged an outswinger. Then Shaun Pollock was bamboozled by a mean inswinger. His five for 40 from 10 electric overs was Sreesanth’s best performance yet. He would never again reproduce that kind of quality. Every delivery, bowled with exemplary control, seemed testing.

India had now secured a stranglehold on the game. Guided by V. V. S. Laxman’s 73, India progressed to 278 in their second innings, setting South Africa a target of 402.

Sreesanth and Zaheer dented the hosts on the chase, sharing six wickets between them. South Africa were dismissed for 278. The Indians leapt in joy.

It was the first Indian victory in a Test on South African soil. Dravid and his men had made history. And Sreesanth was the toast.

After all, it was a once-in-lifetime spell.