Moving an event from the rare to the commonplace

During India’s inaugural Test against South Africa, in Durban, some of us in the media box were among the first non-Whites to watch a Test in that country from behind the bowler’s arm. Later Nelson Mandela was to describe to us how he watched his favourite cricketer, Australia’s Neil Harvey, from a cage square of the wicket.

India began well, getting a wicket with the first ball, Jimmy Cook caught Sachin Tendulkar bowled Kapil Dev. The Test was drawn, but South Africa won in Port Elizabeth (now called Gqeberha) to take the series. In three decades since, India have not won a series there after seven more tours. Their much-vaunted batting was dismissed for 100 and 66 in two innings in Durban ’96. They finally won a Test in Johannesburg a decade later, Sreesanth’s five in the first innings dismissing South Africa for 84.

Three decades might not seem like a long time when you consider it took India seven to win their first series in Australia. But that was a different India then, an India which saw a drawn Test away from home as a victory of sorts, an India content to be lambs abroad if they could be tigers at home.

The favourites

Now India are the No. 1 Test-playing country (South Africa are fourth), and a team that considers a draw akin to a defeat. In nearly three years since January 2021, they have won more matches abroad than they have lost. And when skipper Temba Bavuma says “their bowling attack nullifies the advantage we have,” he acknowledges that India go into the two-Test series as the favourites.

Why do India have a poor series record in South Africa? Some of their finest-ever players, many who would find a place in an all-time XI have competed in that period. The Sachin Tendulkar generation, with its batting and bowling greats somehow couldn’t crack it just as they couldn’t crack Australia either. One poor session of play or an issue with left-arm pace bowling or defensive cricket or improper team balance or a combination of some of these has stymied them.

Two years ago, it was thought that India had their best chance. They had won two successive series in Australia, were led by the aggressive Kohli, had a bowling attack spearheaded by Jasprit Bumrah, and began by winning the opening Test at Centurion despite losing a day to rain. They went into the decider at Cape Town 1-1. But a second innings batting collapse (Rishabh Pant made an unbeaten 100 as they folded for 198) and a return of the left-arm seamer nightmare as Marco Jansen claimed seven wicket in the match ended the dream.

Skewed significance

In a two-Test engagement (‘series’ is hardly appropriate for just two matches), the opening Test assumes a skewed significance. The team that wins cannot lose the rubber. In the early days, defensive Indian captains hoped to draw the first Test and build on that.

Rohit Sharma is a modern leader who would like to get his punch in first. And if he succeeds, he will continue that way, and not get defensive to sit on the lead. It is an attitude South Africa favours too, which should make for interesting matches, weather permitting.

The countries deserve more than just two Tests in an engagement; they have never played a five-Test series which is increasingly becoming rarer outside the Ashes or India’s series against England and Australia.

South Africa have officially asked their players to play in their T20 franchise tournament SA20 which clashes with their next Test engagement (two Tests) against New Zealand in the championship cycle. A hint to the future perhaps?

A win abroad overcomes a mental barrier. The series following the one where India won in Australia for the first time, they won again. That is why it is important for India to win in South Africa.

That achievement then moves the event from the rare to the commonplace. Coach Rahul Dravid, who made four tours of that country knows only too well the extent of the task.

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