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Searching for a Test series identity is not the Final Frontier

Trevor Chesterfield

Updated: December 15, 2010, 7:58 PM IST
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It has probably slipped the thoughts of those indulging in the dramatic and hyped headline-grabbing image that the current India Test series in South Africa is not just about the two teams heading the ICC Test rankings. It is also about a trophy named after an Indian.

In time the name of the prize, the Krish Mackherduj Trophy can achieve its own icon image. For now, however, the series starting in Centurion is in serious need of an identity. Cliched metaphors such as final frontier and last frontier (which is actually Alaska), does not create an imperious identity. It has that pretentiousness about it which smacks of "wannabe status".

While The Ashes was born out of tongue-in-cheek newspaper humour in the late English summer of 1882, the Krish Mackerdhuj Tropy is to honour a South African anti-apartheid sports administrator of the 1970s and 1980s and later his country's ambassador to Japan.

The Ashes myth was pursued in similar light vein to the Sporting Times "obituary" by an Australian woman, Florence Morphy, and her Melbourne friends. Miss Morphy was engaged to the England captain, Ivo Bligh, later Lord Darnley, whose team reclaimed The Ashes the following southern summer of 1882/83. She had burnt a veil and placed the ashes in a small terracotta perfume vase and presented it to him as a parting gift and so created the legend of the urn now into its 128th year of combat.

Unfortunately Kish Mackerdhuj's name is barely remembered by those thumping the drums in the Indian media and across the ocean in South Africa and how he was one of the pathfinders of the new South Africa and a rainbow nation image that has lost some of its glow through the past decade as the struggle to nationhood has been besieged, sadly in some cases, by political paranoia that has little to do with cricket or the Mackerdhuj philosophy.

At best, the series is about how the side under Mahendra Singh Dhoni is embarking on a series to try and establish their credentials of being capable of winning games in South Africa as they do at home. Well now, 18 years of Test history between two nations such as South Africa and India, whose cricket roots were born out of British Raj domination, is still seeking that identity.

This is unlike Tests involving India and Australia. It has long been recognised as the challenge of India's desire to beat a side in conditions recognised as being almost as impregnable as their own; why whisper the words Chappell/Gavaskar Trophy and watch the curious and mystic smile.

While there is a large Indian expatriate community in South Africa, there is still a division between the older apartheid generation and those of the post-apartheid era brought up since the mid-1980s. While the latter still support Indian and Pakistan teams, the majority of younger support follow South Africa.

That is until India are involved when there divided loyalties which do split families, but in a familial way and not one where there is family feud. Those brought up without the trappings of the inhuman legislation that Mackherdhuj fought, along with other administrators and in the honour of the Mahatma Gandhi legacy who lived in South Africa for a time, to get rid of the degrading institutionalised systems, are those in the latter camp.

Such laws often divided friends and even the anti-miscegenation criminal legislation introduced from 1948 as part of the apartheid dogma still leave their mark with its society.

Few would know how in 1909, when the British-born South African mining magnet, Sir Abe Bailey, whose idea it was to have a international cricket body, now the International Cricket Council, attempted to organise a game at Lord's. He ran the gauntlet of political pressure in South Africa on the heels of the end of a debilitating anglo-Boer (South Africa) War of 1899-1902 to have the match played.

Had this game taken place, the history of South African and Indian cricket could have had a different landscape. As it is, financial reasons were behind the abandoning of that proposed Indian venture, which had the blessing of KS Ranjitsinhji, who was not part of the playing compliment.

As a rivalry, since the 1992/93 Friendship Tour, it has created a deeper appreciation of the Indian community and the trials and tribulations with Hashim Amla the first to earn a Test cap; his debut at Eden Gardens in Kolkata being a signposted event of significance in the South African side.

A humble man with a sense of dry humour, he has given the Indian image a new-look in the game in South Africa. His exposure at the international level has turned him into a world-class player which has created a focus for others to follow a similar more familiar path.

Now there is talk that suggests because of the bond between the new South Africa and India this is likely to be the last of the three-match Test series. It is felt future Test series will be of a four or five-match duration, placing it on a level with those involving England.

Just where this particular Indian team fits into the game's history is hard to say. So many are suggesting it is the best. South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith agreed how it is a conundrum when addressing a pre-match media conference in Centurion.

"It is a difficult say whether this is the best Indian team to tour South Africa, but it is certainly one of the most experienced. There are a number of well-travelled players and they have all been playing the game for a very long time," he agreed when the question was posed.

"They have got a lot of experience and they should know how to adapt to the surfaces they will be facing. Someone at the function the other night said that Sachin (Tendulkar) had been coming here since their first tour (1992), so he has probably seen more South African surfaces than I have! Their ability and experience is probably something they have over other Indian teams."

Which is one way to view the team, the tour and the series of three games, which breaks tradition as The Wanderers is not hosting a major Test this series, the first time since tours resumed in 1992/93 where India's bowling reduced that South African side to 26 for four and later 73 for five with Manoj Prabhakar collecting four early wickets on a misty first morning.

When India last played at Centurion, in 2001/02, the Test was demoted because of cricket politics to a five-day first-class game after a variety of charges against Indian players during the second Test at Port Elizabeth. It was a rancorous time with Mike Denness then match referee bringing a series of charges against Sachin Tendulkar over alleged ball tampering.

It was a classical Mexican standoff without the Mexicans and the ICC would have nothing to do with it, as BCCI chief Jagmohan Dalmiya and then ICC president Malcolm Gray and Malcolm Speed scrapped over the details. It was a case of political muscle bending which has been buried. Yet as a series with a growing future, the Mackerdhij Trophy needs to get an identity before it can claim icon status. So forget the final frontier label, it is a seriously overworked idiom.

First Published: December 15, 2010, 7:58 PM IST

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