The first time India won a Test on South African soil, Rahul Dravid was the captain. That was in 2006, and when Virender Sehwag caught Makhaya Ntini off Zaheer Khan to complete the victory, Dravid led his team in a howling chorus, pumping their fists in the air.
At Centurion on Thursday, when Ravichandran Ashwin scalped last man Lungi Ngidi, Dravid, now India's head coach, barely broke into a smile. Not that this win is any less significant than the one in 2006, setting India up as it did for a possible first-ever series win in South Africa.
The Virat Kohli-led side also became the first ever Indian team to overcome Centurion's batter-unfriendly conditions, and will now mount a most convincing pursuit of a series win. The victory also marks a happy beginning to Dravid's coaching stint with a positive result in his first overseas Test match.
But in the end, the measured response from Dravid, and even from the usually turbocharged Kohli, spoke of another truth—the win was simply what was expected. All India needed was 10 sessions plus two overs to overpower South Africa, despite an entire day's play lost to rain. This effort and the clinical finish are testament to the progress this Indian Test side has made in the past four years playing overseas.
It began very much here in South Africa, in another Johannesburg Test match at the beginning of 2018, when Jasprit Bumrah first burst on to the Test scene. "That was a big milestone for us as a side," Kohli said after the match. "We came to South Africa to test whether we can play well away from home. Probably on the toughest Test of the tour, we showed heart, we showed determination."
Bumrah had picked up seven wickets in that Test match that could have been deemed unsafe for play on Day 3 if South Africa had their way. Kohli and his team wanted to play on and their bowlers battered and bruised the South African line up en route to a 63-run win.
Bumrah is still bowling with the same menace, as his final burst on Day 4 at the SuperSport Park showed us. He got five wickets here and could have had many more, but for his freak ankle-sprain in the 1st innings. "Otherwise, our lead would have been larger and the game would not even have got that close on the last day," Kohli rubbed it in, in case Dean Elgar and his team were listening.
But to bring some context, this was only India's 4th ever win in 21 Tests through 29 years over seven previous attempts in South Africa. That gives a measure of how difficult it has historically been for Indian sides to win on the up- and-down, lively tracks here. Dravid has gone through it all. He was a player when the MS Dhoni-led side won the Durban Test match in 2010. In both winning efforts of the past that Dravid played in, Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan were the wreckers-in-chief with the ball.
But since that 2018 Wanderers win—eight players from that eleven are also in the current squad—India has developed a team so rich in talent and of such distinction that this year's World Test Championship final loss notwithstanding, they could be considered the finest Test team around right now just going by the wins they have notched up in wildly varying conditions against top teams. Each away victory has been scripted by stellar match-winning performances and at home India has rolled over everyone with the heavy roller.
Of the overseas wins, the Gabba Test stands out of course, with a horribly depleted squad winning the grittiest of fights at Australia's most impregnable fortress.
"It will go down as one of the greatest years in Indian Test cricket history," said KL Rahul, the architect of the latest win, who batted with spectacular discipline during his 123 runs effort in the 1st innings.