Nothing could separate the top two Test sides in South Africa – except Sachin. By Telford Vice
From the latest issue of The Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here
INDIA came, saw and for the first time in five series stretching back 18 years they were not conquered. The teams shared the rubber but the honours were anything but even.
India could lay claim to a larger chunk of the shared spoils than the South Africans, whose dire growls about what would befall the visitors on the hard, fast pitches of the republic rang ever more hollow as the series unfolded.
“We don’t ask for any favours when we go there and they shouldn’t expect any favours here” was the general tone, as summed up by Mark Boucher, during the phony war before the first ball was bowled in anger. “We’ll see how guys like Gautam Gambhir cope with the ball flying around their ears.” However, he did concede that “we have to be careful because they have one or two good seamers”
The Indians said little in return and when they crashed to 116 for 9 on the first day of the series after being inserted on a damp pitch at Centurion – where they subsequently lurched to an innings defeat – the Proteas must have thought they were going to have an easier time of it than even they imagined.
But MS Dhoni’s team showed the steel that those who came before them had lacked. They called South Africa’s bluff by winning on a lively pitch in Durban before forcing an honourable draw in Cape Town.
No favours were asked and none was given. India’s batsmen versus South Africa’s bowlers: Gambhir answered Boucher’s implied question by coping superbly, despite playing Tests in South Africa for the first time, even though he had made his debut six years and 36 matches previously.
Consequently on the first day at Centurion he looked like a man doing the moonwalk in slow motion on an ice rink while bowlers hurled rubberised hand-grenades at him. These they duly aimed at his ears and most places above his waist. But it took the South Africans an hour to remove Gambhir – for 5. In the second innings he hung around for over three hours to score 80. When Gambhir was left out of the team to play the second Test in Durban with a hand injury, the note from underground was that in reality he was not keen to face the quicks.
But he delivered as doughty a pair of innings as have been seen in South Africa in the decider in Cape Town, scoring 93 and 64 and batting for almost 10 hours, spending much of that time in considerable discomfort caused by a blow on the elbow that ruled him out of the one-day series. If ever a hero went unsung, Gambhir did.
VVS Laxman came to South Africa with a reputation that even the locals could not sneer at. His career average of 47.57 was in the ball-park with the 41.11 he had hitherto achieved in the country. Even the great Sachin Tendulkar was mortal in South Africa, where he averaged 39.76 compared with his career mark, before the series, of 56.55. Sometimes statistics do not lie. Laxman’s steel-willed, unpretty, bloody-minded 96 in Durban was the major reason for India’s 87-run victory.
And so to Tendulkar’s 50th Test century. The Centurion pitch calmed down into a surface fit for just such a feat and Tendulkar delivered it in a seamless celebration of his talent. “It’s just another number,” he said afterwards. Back home, much of a nation of one billion watching their idol explain himself live on television could only blink in disbelief.
Witnessing Dale Steyn bowl can be disconcerting and not only for those waiting to face him. When it all works for Steyn and he is able to let rip with the full might contained in his deceptively slight frame, it is as if an internal force that is not securely under his control is throwing his body about. The engine is too big and powerful for the car, you might say.
The most chilling words a batsman can hear from Steyn when they are alone together out in the desolate middle are: “My friend.” Once Steyn addresses his victim thus, pain, blood and dismissal are almost sure to follow. Steyn looked every inch the world’s pre-eminent fast bowler in the series – and he made many ‘friends’ as he went about taking 21 wickets.
Morne Morkel does not have Steyn’s mean streak but he does have bounce to burn, which sometimes makes batsmen forget how quick he is – until, of course, they try to decipher what has hit them as they trudge back to the dressing room. But for a tendency to relieve the pressure by spewing the odd delivery down the leg side, Morkel might have taken more than his 15 wickets. Lonwabo Tsotsobe cannot keep company with those two but he will remember this series largely for the slew of dropped catches and false shots that came off his bowling. A bowler of Paul Harris’ modest abilities was always going to struggle to make a dent in India’s batting line-up. He made none even when the conditions suited him.
Those “one or two good seamers” Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth ensured India had a couple of tough guys of their own to rely on when the going got rough. But Zaheer missed the first Test with a groin problem and without him India wielded something closer to a defence than an attack. When he returned in Durban it was as if Luke Skywalker had fresh batteries in his lightsaber. Suddenly Ishant Sharma was less a genial Afghan hound and more a lean, mean barracuda. Sreesanth, meanwhile, pumped up the volume. “Even your own players think you’re arrogant,” he told Graeme Smith amid a stream of thoughtless filth. Smith denied that his fatal cross-batted, top edge soon afterwards was triggered by that comment.
India could take only four wickets while conceding 620 runs at Centurion. In Durban, given a green, springy pitch and plenty of swing through the soggy air, Zaheer and Harbhajan Singh took six each.
Cape Town held the decider, where Newlands’ ever-present moisture juiced up Sreesanth, who claimed five wickets. Harbhajan was a constant, rasping, hawkish threat in a second innings in which he found drift, bounce and turn to earn seven wickets.
Kallis comes home
Test double-centuries are not meant to be scored by just anyone. But Jacques Kallis is the fulcrum around which South Africa’s batting has turned for much of the past 15 years. He is disciplined and patient – and blessed with textbook technique. Anyone he most certainly is not.
So when he scored an undefeated 201 at Centurion, his promise was finally fulfilled. When he made 161 and 109 not out in Cape Town, despite being noticeably hampered by a rib injury, all who watched him knew that greatness was within his reach. Then they remembered how far Tendulkar was beyond him – 11 centuries far, by one measure – and wished him well as he strove towards that goal. Many might be great, few are.
Kallis is closer than most.
Scorecard – First Test
Scorecard – Second Test
Scorecard – Third Test
Six of the best
To the middle of the 20th century almost every Ashes series was a fight for world supremacy. But then the rest started to catch up, prompting some unforgettable contests between first and second.
Australia 4-1 West Indies 1951-52
Never judge a Test series by its cover. The scoreline suggests a mighty comedown for the West Indies in their first series since their famous win in England 18 months earlier. And although Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller bounced out their batsmen with troubling regularity, they could easily have won 3-2. They lost the first Test by three wickets, dropping five catches off Alf Valentine in 20 minutes, and the crucial fourth Test by one wicket. The last pair of Doug Ring and Bill Johnston adding 38 improbable runs; Wisden said that “no more exciting finish could be imagined.” And, perhaps, no more deceptive scoreline.
South Africa 4-0 Australia 1969-70
Nobody has ever manhandled a full-strength Australian side like this. They were not just beaten in all four Tests; they were thrashed. Beforehand Australia had lost only two series in 14 years but they dropped over 30 catches in the series, Garth McKenzie, nominally their best bowler, averaged 333 and South Africa’s Holy Trinity of Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock and Mike Proctor in particular ran amok. South Africa had not played a Test for four years; they would not play another for 22. One of the all-time great teams had a single series together; sporting memories do not come much more bittersweet than this.
Australia 5-1 West Indies 1975-76
Sometimes winning the war is not enough. Australia won five of the six battles here but by doing so they raised hell: West Indies burned with a desire for vengeance that they would take out on Australia and the rest of the world for much of the next two decades. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, putting the Test in testosterone, shared 56 wickets. West Indies had won the World Cup a few months earlier but they were not yet adept at playing the longer game. Wisden described the series as a “sad anti-climax.”
West Indies 1-1 Pakistan 1987-88
As West Indies brutalised all-comers, only one side looked them in the eye and matched them on the field. Pakistan drew three series in a row between 1986 and 1991 and came tantalisingly close to winning in the Caribbean in the second of those. An immense series, in which almost every run felt like a major achievement, was fittingly dominated by the greats: Javed Miandad and Viv Richards were the top run-scorers, Imran Khan (who came out of retirement), Malcolm Marshall and Abdul Qadir the top wicket-takers. West Indies needed a ninth-wicket partnership of 61 between Jeff Dujon and Winston Benjamin in the final Test in Barbados to square the series and keep their long unbeaten record intact.
West Indies 1-2 Australia 1994-95
After 15 years and 29 series West Indies were finally dethroned. They fell to 6 for 3 on the first morning of the first Test in Barbados and the series barely stopped for breath thereafter. Glenn McGrath hinted at greatness for the first time and Steve Waugh achieved it. In a low-scoring series (only three hundreds were scored in the four matches) his average of 107.25 was astonishing, culminating in the monstrous 200 that decided the final Test. For Australia it was the end of a glorious ascent from their mid-80s nadir.
England 2-1 Australia 2005
First place may not have been at stake, such was Australia’s massive lead in the ICC Test Championship, but something much more important was up for grabs: the Ashes, in the first competitive series for 16 years. The details are still fresh: the super-heroism of Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne, the skunk rock of Kevin Pietersen’s batting, the Fab Four going on what nobody knew was their farewell tour of the country. We knew then, and we now know, that for those of a certain age cricket will never get any better than this. Rob Smyth