In the 1996-’97 tour, India were 33/4 after South Africa opted to bat first and declared after posting an imposing total of 529/7. The hosts had won the first Test in Durban by 328 runs and now in Cape Town, they were setting themselves up nicely for a series-clinching victory.
Sachin Tendulkar, captaining the Indian team, had only just come to the crease, batting at No 5 after Venkatesh Prasad. He witnessed the fall of the fourth wicket, that of Sourav Ganguly, just as he was trying to familiarise himself with the conditions out in the middle.
But that didn’t stop Tendulkar from playing two confident front foot drives first up. Shaun Pollock was in the middle of a fine spell and he pitched one on a good length, Tendulkar took a short stride forward and played a classic straight drive for two. Next, Pollock pitched it on a similar length but slightly wide and Tendulkar drove it through cover for two more.
Those two shots marked the beginning of what is remembered as one of Tendulkar’s finest Test knocks. His team was in dire straits. Yet again, the responsibility had fallen on his shoulders. And yet again, he delivered.
Tendulkar had shown impressive form leading up to the South Africa tour. About six months earlier, he had scored two sublime Test tons in England – 122 in Birmingham followed by 177 in Nottingham. Towards the end of 1996, when South Africa toured India, he got a 42 in Ahmedabad and a 61 in Kanpur but couldn’t convert those starts into big scores.
It was in Cape Town when Tendulkar truly sunk his teeth into South Africa. Against a bowling attack that comprised Allan Donald, Pollock, Paul Adams, Brian McMillan and Hansie Cronje, the right-hander hit 26 fours in a knock of 169 runs. What was also remarkable about that innings was that he faced 254 deliveries and didn’t hit a single six.
That knock by Tendulkar is also remembered for his mammoth sixth-wicket partnership with Mohammad Azharuddin. The duo got together at the crease when India were 58/5, with VVS Laxman the latest batter dismissed, and went on to add 222 runs.
Azharuddin was the more aggressive of the two in the partnership. The right-hander hit 19 fours and a six in a blazing knock of 115 runs from 110 balls. His partnership with Tendulkar didn’t put India ahead in the contest, but it ensured they avoided follow-on.
Even after Azharuddin was dismissed, though, Tendulkar carried on and was the last batter to be dismissed eventually. Running out of partners, he upped the ante and played some majestic strokes against the second new ball.
India got bowled out for 359 in their first innings and went on to lose the match by 282 runs, after suffering a collapse in their second innings, but that didn’t take away from the of impact created by Tendulkar’s century. He had batted for 329 minutes and shown incredible skill and determination to keep the Proteas bowlers at bay.
In an interview with The Hindu in 2015, former South Africa captain Ali Bacher described Tendulkar’s knock in Cape Town as one of the greatest he had ever seen.
“I will never forget the day in early January 1997,” Bacher was quoted as saying.
“Nelson Mandela came to the ground and we had the teams on the ground... Both teams were overwhelmed meeting the great man. During that day Sachin played one of the greatest knocks I have ever seen. I can recall two things – one is Donald taking the second new ball and bowling from the Wynberg End. Then what we see is straight drives, cover drives, and pulls and cuts. Sachin simply annihilated Donald.”
Here are highlights of that unforgettable knock by Tendulkar in Cape Town: