South Africa throwback with VRV Singh

It’s a cold December afternoon and we are at the picturesque Zakir Hussain Rose Garden in Chandigarh. As the locals take a late afternoon stroll, soaking in the winter sun, we spot VRV Singh, the former India fast bowler, out for a run. 

We start talking at the end of his run, and our conversations go back to the Indian cricket team and its tour of South Africa. It also brings back memories of that 2006-07 Test series, where the touring Indian team won the first Test, where a solid last-wicket stand between Sourav Ganguly and VRV proved pivotal.

The Test began on December 15, 2006 and gave Indian cricket a new dimension. “Yaar, 15 saal ho gaye… purani baatein yaad aa gaya…” VRV begins.

India did not have the best of build ups having already lost the ODI series 4-0. But ahead of the Test match, it won a tour match in Potchefstroom, adding confidence that all was not lost. So, under captain Rahul Dravid, India took the field at Johannesburg with a lot of expectations and had a dream – to win a first-ever Test match in the rainbow nation.

READ: Rohit Sharma ruled out of India’s South Africa Test series

“I was 22 and quite new to the set up. Even though I had been with the team for a few months and played against the West Indies and England, those were still early days,” says VRV. “We knew we had never won a Test match in South Africa, so the team was keeping its hopes high and we knew, this is our chance…”

The start was delayed due to poor weather and after winning the toss, Dravid opted to bat first. In the seaming conditions, South Africa fast bowlers soon reduced India to 14-2 before Sachin Tendulkar and Dravid forged a 69-run alliance. But the two departed shortly after India reached the 100-run mark and the focus was now on Ganguly, who was returning to the team after almost 10 months.

South Africa, however, took five wickets for 49 runs, before VRV walked in as the last man to join Ganguly.

Teammates congratulate VRV Singh after he bowled out Rest of South Africa’s Morne van Wyk during a tour match in Potchefstroom.   –  REUTERS

 

“It was a nervous moment for sure. Facing South Africa’s pace quartet was quite a task. I was not the best of batters, so it was tougher. But the moment I walked in, Dada [Ganguly] told me, “’Play your natural game’” and that I should play freely…,” VRV reminisces.

While Ganguly’s words comforted him, VRV also remembers what Tendulkar had told him before he walked in to bat.

Paaji told me that if I could add 20-25 runs, then it will help our bowlers to defend some more runs and that actually motivated me.

“I walked in and Dada made sure that I did not feel out of the zone. He was a seasoned campaigner, so when such a player boosts your morale, you know that you have to hang in there. I did exactly that. I just backed myself and stayed on at the crease…”

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He contributed 29 runs, which helped India add crucial 44 runs for the last wicket. “We walked back to the dressing room and everyone was happy with our effort. We had a positive vibe and we started believing that we are in the game…”

But then, 249 did not look like a convincing total. “We knew we had to bowl well. Zak [Zaheer Khan] and Sree [Sreesanth] bowled beautifully to bring us back into the game, and to our disbelief, South Africa was bundled out for 84… We felt we are back in command…”

Now, India cashed in on the 165-run lead and set a 402-run target for South Africa, courtesy a partnership between Laxman and Zaheer. And chasing a mammoth total, South Africa crumbled again as India clinched the game by 123 runs. Though the team lost the following two games and eventually conceded the series, the win in Johannesburg was special.

“It gave us enough confidence,” VRV says. He was not expected to play that Test, but five wickets in the tour game gave him that opportunity.

“I was bowling well at that time and was also getting wickets. So, when an opportunity came my way, I just lapped it up. That match was special and a great learning experience.”

As the current Indian team gears up for its tour of South Africa, beginning on December 26, VRV believes that this is a strong side, which has all the firepower to break the jinx of never having won a Test series in South Africa.

READ: De Kock set to miss part of India Test series

“The way we have beaten Australia away and also tamed England, I think that is indication enough of how much we have improved as a team. This side has so much variety and there is a pool of talent, which gives the team management plenty of options. If player A does not deliver, you have someone else. If that also fails, you have a third choice, so there are so many options. It’s a good headache to have for the team management,” VRV, who played five Tests and a couple of ODIs for India, says.

Now, a coach, VRV understands that Rohit Sharma’s absence could be a blow to the team, but he is optimistic of a good show with Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane around.

“Pujara and Rahane’s experience will come in handy for the team and with Virat around, there is so much depth in the batting. There is Shreyas [Iyer], Mayank Agarwal and so many of talented players, so the side looks balanced.”

In the bowling department, too, India has a mix of youth and experience. “Siraj [Mohammad Siraj] and Shardul [Thakur] were so good in Australia and I believe that Siraj has been effective in every conditions, so I have a lot of expectations from him in South Africa. The fact that there is Ishant [Sharma], Mohammed Shami and [Jasprit] Bumrah, the youngsters can learn a thing or two from them. It is a very good unit and has all the potential to win the Test series,” VRV says.

Having been there, done that, VRV understands that the initial days could be a bit of a challenge for the players, who are touring South Africa for the first time.

“The players should know that they have played enough cricket, so they should back themselves and just take it as it comes,” VRV says, repeating what the Dada of Indian cricket had told him once – “Play your natural game.”

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