As the South Africans landed in India in November 1996 the mood in cricketing circles in the country was not very optimistic. Sure, the Indians had just won the one-off Test against a rather emaciated Australian side at New Delhi by seven wickets but the new visitors were obviously going to be tougher opponents. Ever since their return to the international fold in 1991 the South Africans had displayed their athleticism in the field and their batting and bowling prowess in no uncertain terms. They had more than held their own in contests against England, Australia, New Zealand and India and were challenging strongly for the position of No 1 team in international cricket.

Under the captaincy of Hansie Cronje the South Africans arrived eager to repeat their victory over India during the historic maiden series at home four years before. They came armed to the teeth in batting and bowling while one name was enough to guarantee that they would put the Indians to the shade when it came to fielding – Jonty Rhodes.

The Indians had built up a formidable record in their own country on designer turning tracks and how the South Africans would fare against Anil Kumble and company was the main debating point on the eve of the first Test at Ahmedabad. The Indians playing to their strength picked three spinners in Kumble, Sunil Joshi and Narendra Hirwani. Javagal Srinath and his Karnataka teammate Venkatesh Prasad were the opening bowlers. The two had struck up a potent combination in England earlier that summer but on home pitches their wings would obviously be cut.

On a pitch that promised much for spin bowlers the toss was going to be vital and on the morning of November 20 Cronje’s fears about the track must have intensified when he called wrongly giving India first use of the track. But right from the start the Indians were struggling and the fact that not one batsman reached the half century mark underlines this. Skipper Sachin Tendulkar was the top scorer with 42 and early on the second morning the Indians were all out for 223.

The South Africans fared little better and were tottering at 119 for seven with the spin trio of Kumble, Joshi and Hirwani working havoc. But then there was a rescue act performed by Pat Symcox and Fanie de Villiers who added 63 runs for the eighth wicket before Joshi trapped the former leg before for 32. De Villiers and Allan Donald added a further 60 runs for the ninth wicket and the South Africans obtained a lead of 21 runs with de Villiers remaining unbeaten on 67.

The lead seemed to just about balance things for South Africa had to bat last on a pitch that would deteriorate with time. But India had to put some runs on the board for their bowlers to have a chance to bowl out South Africa. This was never easy on a difficult track and it was only a finely crafted 51 by VVS Laxman that saw the Indians reach 190 before they were all out early on the fourth morning.

South Africa had to get 170 runs for victory on a pitch that was helping spinners but not alarmingly. The odds favoured South Africa at this point. For one thing they had all the time in the world. Secondly the target was less than 200 and the visitors did have the batting to achieve it. For India everything would depend on the spin trio. They held the key to an Indian victory for on this surface Srinath and Prasad would perhaps just send down a few overs as a formality before the spinners took over.

No one however could have bargained for what actually happened. Through that memorable morning and afternoon on November 23 the spectators sat spellbound as they witnessed something that had never happened before in Indian cricket – the spectacle of an Indian fast bowler scything through an international batting line-up.

As Srinath marked out his run-up for the first over of the innings the crowd was already looking ahead to when Kumble would be handed the ball. And yet at the end of Srinath’s first over South Africa were zero runs for two wickets. Off the fifth ball Andrew Hudson was palpably leg before on the back foot to a delivery that cut in sharply. Daryl Cullinan perished off the next delivery caught off a model outswinger that rose from a good length and all he could do was to edge the ball to wicketkeeper Mongia.

South Africa were already under siege and Srinath did not let the advantage slip. Fast, fiery and furious he kept up a steady barrage of bouncers and yorkers, inswingers and outswingers and it was more through luck than skill that Gary Kirsten and Cronje survived. Somehow the score lurched on but the batting remained a streaky business. Joshi chipped in with the wicket of Kirsten while Kumble dismissed Craig McMillan.

But Cronje and Dave Richardson batting resolutely took the score to 96 and at this stage South Africa were favourites. Rhodes was the next batsman and then to follow were the first innings heroes de Villiers and Symcox. South Africa were now only 74 runs adrift of the target and they had six wickets in hand. At this stage Tendulkar brought back Srinath and for the second time in the day the pace spearhead picked up two wickets with successive deliveries getting rid of Richardson and Rhodes and suddenly South Africa were groggy and on the ropes at 96 for six.

Cronje was batting in exemplary fashion but he needed someone to stay with him. Could there be another recovery along the lines of the first innings? On the contrary the slide became even sharper. Hardly had the cheers for the South African 100 died down when Kumble struck bowling Symcox with a vicious flipper. Two balls later the Indian spin spearhead had de Villiers snapped up by Azharuddin at silly point. Both the first innings saviours were out without scoring and South Africa were 100 for eight. It only remained for Srinath who had started it all to deliver the coup de grace. And he did it with a flourish. With the fourth ball of his 12th over he bowled Donald and then made a fair mess of Paul Adams’ stumps with his next delivery.

It was sensational. The match was over an hour after lunch with the last six wickets falling for a mere nine runs off 22 balls. South Africa had slid from 96 for four to 105 all out with Cronje remaining unbeaten with a gallant 48. The innings had lasted just 38.5 overs.

And in a most dramatic manner so very typical of the best fast bowlers Srinath had brought about the collapse by taking two wickets with successive deliveries three times during the unforgettable period. His career-best figures of 11.5-4-21-6 were really mind-boggling stuff given the fact that it was accomplished on a pitch reputedly to be a spinner’s paradise.

Thanks mainly to Srinath who finished with match figures of eight for 68 India won the Test most unexpectedly by 64 runs, their first win over South Africa in five meetings.