Two test series in the Southern Hemisphere ended within a space of half a day at the behest of time zones. And here I was in the Northern Hemisphere trying desperately to look for similarities between the two. I got only as far as the word “historical”, as India drew their first ever series in South Africa and England won their first Ashes (series) away from home in twenty-four years, and gave up:
One was as tightly contested a test series as they come and the score line 1-1 was, I am sure even by the standards of most neutrals, fair. The only grudge was that here was another three-test series between the titans which appeared like an extended trailer in lieu of the blockbusting movie it should be. The other series was anything but a tight contest and at the end of it both the teams would have wondered if Perth was an aberration, the final throwback to a recent era of Australian dominance, or just comic relief. Despite the dissimilarities, the two series together gave us an idea of the teams to watch out for over the next two winters at least, and, perhaps, at most. While Australia plummeted from one low to another nadir with the same sort of drastic and dramatic regularity they displayed while scaling those incredible highs, we realised not only that a once great team was now barely competent but also that the days when a single team dominated world cricket are all but over.
Although the Sri Lankan cricketers may demur and justifiably, what with the team never getting the share of test cricket it deserves, I firmly believe that England, South Africa and India are the top teams going around now and will be for a while. I am obviously restricting my view to test cricket for every other form of the game, including the upcoming ODI world cup which is likely to be a pointless ritual of batting practice with scorecards that might rival Manhattan intended to test who gets to snooze first on the ground, seems to be a mundane overdose.
If you ask me which among the three teams is the best, I would say the following: India (and it does not take great shakes to say so because they are ranked number one and have not lost a test series for a while and because I am an Indian); South Africa (purely based on the unbelievable bowling strength they have and a solid, if slightly nervous, batting line up) and England (for being arguably the most consistent team in the circuit).
Hair-splitting apart, I think England has an edge (don’t look at me like that for saying it, but the days when “edge” would have definitively referred to an English middle-order man’s bat are behind us!) simply because there is variety in the bowling department, doggedness and flourish with the bat, a gritty wicket-keeper batsman in Matt Prior and a coach who knows a thing or two more than others about wading through difficult water. Their bench strength is fabulous as well and all the mentioned pluses came together at different points in the Ashes where England played as single-mindedly and clinically as I have seen any team play in recent memory. Admittedly, the English dominance appeared exaggerated because of Australia’s at times painful – for the fan – otherwise wan struggle in choosing between explosion and implosion on the pitch, and some inexplicable selection bloopers off it which made one wonder at times whether the board in charge was the ACB or PCB. Owing to Australia’s mediocrity, I believe that the edge England has over India and South Africa is slight. Thankfully for them England understand that winning the Ashes in Australia is just the sort of prelude, albeit historical, to better things and not an end-all.
Among South Africa and India, South Africa is likely to have less worries; any team with an evidently ever-in-form – sometimes pretending-to-be-out-of-practice – Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn is not bound to have too many headaches. But even apart from these too big names, who once again drilled their presence over the Indian team in the recently concluded series, the South Africans will be in good cheer. Although Kallis and Tendulkar had a stupendous 2010, made even more memorable by their age and longevity, Hashim Amla was for me the batsman of 2010. He scored runs everywhere, against all attacks and at first-drop, a tricky and challenging position to bat and one owned by greats such as Bradman, Ponting, Sangakkara and others: his three hundreds in the two test series against India in India last year with the twin hundreds Eden Gardens may be mistaken for the stuff of a marathon man than a simple shy Moslem from Natal. Smith and Petersen have formed a decent partnership upstairs; AB De Viliers scored South Africa’s best test score recently and is by no means old; and Mark Boucher’s return to form with the bat ticks most boxes for the Proteas.
The Indians on the other hand have more forebodings than their stoical skipper would care to admit: for me, the greatest of them is the over-reliance on Zaheer Khan which was abundantly on evidence during his absence in the first test at Centurion where the Indians bowled without heart, inspiration, swing or bowling commonsense. While Khan’s record of injuries is itself a source of concern and frustration for him and those around him, the team clearly needs a second spearhead. Harbhajan’s 7-120 at Newlands is a relief but I hope it spurs him on to be the leader of the attack in home conditions and a potent ally to quick men abroad. But the concern is, as it has always been in India, in the fast bowling department: for all that was said about him, Sreesanth was brilliant in South Africa but all with due respect I do not see his head being made for leading an attack. Ishant Sharma was disappointing to say the least and although the young man has time I hope, for his sake and the country’s, that he does not become another case of an Indian quick in the “what-might-have-been” category than the “what-is”.
From the batting perspective, some major surgeries are required: old age is India’s biggest problem and because it is an all-or-nothing issue piecemeal solutions will not thankfully last. At 37 Tendulkar had his best year in the decade, and while it is cause for celebrating the Master all over again it is also cause for concern. Dhoni said that “comebacks” are the stuff of this team but great teams do not put themselves in a backs-to-the-wall scenario three times in four tests. Each of those times, and once with an injury, it was Laxman who had to bail India out. Having a single bogeyman for all occasions does not augur well in a team sport. Despite his 192 and his palpable attempts to fight it out in South Africa, Dravid would know he had an ordinary year and that his records in South Africa and Sri Lanka, like Ponting’s and Warne’s averages an India and Sampras’ record at the French Open, would remain a blot: if it is not time to go yet, at least it is time for him to drop down the order. It is too early to judge Pujara or Raina but their ascent is going to be difficult. The only settled thing about this team is the opening pair, with Murali Vijay waiting in the wings with strong intermittent performances as well. Despite that little consolation, India may be headed half-way to the sort of place the Australian batting place was in during the Ashes – and rest assured, it will not be a good place to be.
Apparently, India play tests in four more continents this year, including Europe, America and Australia. For this team, or at least its three elderly statesmen, this represents the best chance to win matches in a row in varied conditions and show that there is more to the No. 1 ranking than ICC’s method, which with reference to most things (apart from perhaps the UDRS), borders on madness. I do not know about South Africa and England’s schedules but one can be sure that they will be at India’s heels, chipping away.
Barring the four intolerable months that will be spent in the sub-continent in determining the best team in the world in 50 over cricket and then the best Indian-by-name-but-international-by-names team in IPL, under conditions that might make dry bread look more appetising than it ever was, the year promises fascinating cricket for the purists. And something tells me that India, South Africa and England will not remain as close this time next year. If they do, they will have played some unbelievable test cricket which will of course be brilliant for test cricket and for fans of test cricket like me who want it do far more than just survive as a residue of the game's glorious evolution.