When South Africa marked their return to international cricket in 1991 with a series against India, there was one strange thing about the build-up—or at least it felt strange at the time.
If the West Indies were visiting, for example, you would have nightmares about Curtly Ambrose or Patrick Patterson. If it was England you were going up against, a fear of not being able to dismiss Graham Gooch would cause much stress. Zimbabwe? Please, please, please don’t lose to Zimbabwe! This anxiety came with the territory if you grew up watching Indian cricket in the 1980s and 1990s.
With the South Africans, however, you read the names on the visiting squad list without feeling either stress or fear, because you didn’t really have anything to associate those names with.
Allan Donald was “right-arm fast" but we didn’t know how fast. All we knew about Kepler Wessels was that he was a left-handed opener... and we imagined yet another southpaw who would get his team off to solid starts. The only things of note to come out of scanning the list were the excruciating puns involving (Jimmy) Cook, (Clive) Rice and Wessels.
Over time, with South Africa establishing themselves as one of the top teams in the world, curiosity was replaced by fear, especially when it came to away tours. Facing Donald was bad enough... facing Donald at Durban? There was no scenario in which this could end well.
The good memories came in fits and spurts—like Mohammad Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar’s famous counter-attack at Cape Town in 1997. Azharuddin got 115 off just 110 balls before being run out, while Tendulkar scored 169 before falling to that ridiculous catch by Adam Bacher. India went on to lose by 282 runs, but what a glorious, glorious defeat.
Also read: India’s tour of South Africa: Equal in skills, disadvantaged by history
With Indian cricket growing stronger in the last decade and a half, contests against South Africa became more competitive, with this new-found aggression defined by that I-don’t-care-who’s-watching mid-pitch dance by S. Sreesanth in Johannesburg, 2006.
Given this progression, it’s perhaps natural that the series which kicks off in Cape Town on Friday has been preceded mostly by optimism and excitement, even though the team is yet to win a series there.
The Indian team is in top form going into this contest, coming as it does on the back of nine consecutive series wins. They have played most of their recent cricket in familiar conditions, agreed, but they also have all the tools to do well overseas.
In Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, they have batsmen who can see off the new ball—and that is if Shikhar Dhawan fails to provide explosive starts. In Virat Kohli, they have one of the best batsmen in the world, while both Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma can turn a match on its head in a session. The bowling line-up looks strong enough to dismiss any team twice over five days.
“We know exactly what we need to do come game time," Kohli told the press after landing in South Africa. “We know how to win Test matches."
If the build-up to that first series 17 years ago seemed strange, this time around feels equally unfamiliar...a confident Indian team talking up their chances of winning in South Africa.
Anxiety has been replaced by excitement, and, if nothing else, it’s a nice feeling to start 2018 with.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa.
He tweets at @deepakyen