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Quality of Cricket Between India and South Africa Has Trumped Ashes in Recent Years

Dileep Premachandran |Cricketnext | Updated: January 5, 2018, 12:22 PM IST
Quality of Cricket Between India and South Africa Has Trumped Ashes in Recent Years

Virat Kohli and Faf Du Plessis. (BCCI/ Twitter)

This will be the fourth South Africa-India series to overlap with the Ashes in a little over a decade. Hopefully, it will be once again be a whole lot more engrossing than the non-contests for the urn. You have to go back nearly two decades, to 1998-99, for the last Ashes series in Australia that kept viewers interested till the very last. Then too, Australia were by far the more accomplished side, but the spell of a lifetime from Dean Headley gave England victory in Melbourne and sent them to Sydney 2-1 down in the series.

So many of the subsequent series have been grisly mismatches, about as much fun to watch as footage of Muhammad Ali reducing Brian London’s face to golf-ball-sized lumps. Australia won 4-1 in 2002-03, and completed 5-0 sweeps in 2006-07 and 2013-14. In 2010-11, Andrew Strauss’s England were so much better than in-transition Australia that they won three Tests by an innings.

In sharp contrast, South Africa and India have served up some titanic contests. In 2006-07, when Sourav Ganguly was drafted in to the Test squad after the ODI series debacle – the handshake with Greg Chappell when he arrived ahead of the warm-up match in Potchefstroom was one of the southern summer’s more awkward moments – India defied doomsday predictions by winning the first Test at The Wanderers.

A beaming Mickey Arthur had asked for pace and bounce in the Highveld. And on a surface where the ball darted around appreciably, it was Sreesanth, bowling over after over with the seam bolt upright, and Zaheer Khan that shone brightest, skittling South Africa for 84 in the first innings to pave the path for a 123-run win.

South Africa leveled in Durban, but on a dry, Asian surface at Newlands, India had one hand on the series trophy midway through the second day. Ganguly, who finished as India’s top scorer in the series, was stroking the ball with élan, and Virender Sehwag, moved down to No.7, had clattered 40 from just 49 balls to take India to 395 for 5.

But a miscued hoick off Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner making his debut, changed everything. Before your cup of tea had gone cold, India were all out for 414 – a good total, but not enough to shut South Africa out of the contest. Graeme Smith’s 94, a triumph of will over technical flaws, got them to within 41, and India then slipped for the second time.

Harris didn’t do much other than target the leg-stump rough. But as Ravi Shastri, now India’s coach, said so memorably on commentary, India made him look like Lord Harris. What made it more galling was the identity of the protagonists. Sachin Tendulkar played two of his greatest Test innings at Newlands – the 169 in 1996-97 and the 146 against Dale Steyn in full cry 14 years later – while Rahul Dravid had enjoyed half a decade of prolific run-scoring all over the world.

But against Harris, and with the game up for grabs, they treaded water, playing barely a shot in anger. India made 24 in the 15.1 overs that they batted together and the momentum lost would never be regained. Worse still, on a wearing pitch, India had no second spinner, with Harbhajan Singh having been left out to accommodate the reverse-swing threat of Munaf Patel.

But Munaf wasn’t fit, and he pulled up after just one over in the second innings as Zaheer, Sreesanth and Anil Kumble toiled in vain to keep South Africa at bay. Four years later, the teams once again arrived in Cape Town all square. South Africa had won by an innings in Centurion, with Jacques Kallis scoring his first double-hundred. Tendulkar and MS Dhoni batted magnificently to almost save the game, and India took some self-belief to Durban, where they gave their hosts a massive Boxing Day headache.

In seam-friendly conditions, it was again India’s pacers that hit the right lengths, with Harbhajan providing admirable support. But the key to India’s victory was VVS Laxman, whose second-innings 96 was one of the greatest innings of the modern era. That no one else crossed 40 should give you a hint as to how well he batted on a pitch where you were never really in.

The emblematic image of that Indian triumph was the brutal delivery that Sreesanth summoned up to dismiss Kallis. Only a batsman as accomplished could have got a glove to it as it reared up at his face off a length. But Kallis would have the final word, stalling India’s push for victory at Newlands with twin hundreds.

His first innings 161 was a classic, matched only by Tendulkar’s epic joust with Steyn on day three. Then, nursing badly bruised ribs after wearing one on the body, Kallis struck 109 to lead South Africa out of the mire. At 130 for 6 in the second innings, a lead of only 128, India had the scent of victory in their nostrils. But with Mark Boucher batting for his future, and Kallis carrying on despite every shot being followed by a wince, India’s bowlers eventually ran out of puff.

On their last visit, soon after Tendulkar’s retirement, two batting collapses in Durban cost India the series. To be fair, even the draw at The Wanderers, after South Africa had been set an improbable 458 to win, had felt like a loss after India bossed proceedings for the best part of four days.

Faf du Plessis, the current captain, led that final-day resistance, and he was in no doubt as to the intensity of the contest we can expect over the next month. “Big series are why you play,” he said on the eve of the series. “We don’t have an Ashes, so it’s good to see that India versus South Africa can start becoming a really big series. There are some really high-class players that are going to bash it out over the next four weeks.”

There certainly are. And after yet another damp squib of an Ashes, Test cricket badly needs some big boys to come out and play.
First Published: January 5, 2018, 11:21 AM IST

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