Not since 1994/95 – when Australia beat the West Indies – has a Test series been more important in the context of the five-day game rankings.
England-South Africa Test series merits the hype
Given how closely sport and commerce are intertwined, it should surprise no one when contests are hyped beyond recognition, invested with once-in-a-lifetime importance. If you believe India's television channels, every series the national team play is a battle with honour at stake.
The five-day game's stock is not rising, and the reduction of the series to three Tests is an indication of which way the wind is blowing. The rankings may say that the teams are first and third, but it is a world championship clash in all but name.
England may have lost badly in the Middle East to Pakistan, and only drawn in Sri Lanka, but in home conditions they are a formidable force. Last summer's tussle for the No 1 ranking was one of the most lopsided many have ever seen, with India outclassed and outplayed from the moment a patently unfit Zaheer Khan hobbled off the Lord's turf.
South Africa would have assumed the No 1 ranking long ago but for their inability to close out series on home soil.
In 2009/10, they dominated England in three of four Tests but won only one to leave the series all-square. In recent times, they have squandered 1-0 leads against both India and Australia.
They reserve their best cricket for overseas trips, having won on their last tours of both England and Australia. Their previous two visits to India have been drawn, again after they had led on both occasions.
With potent bowling attacks and batting line-ups that have both experience and flair, there is little to choose between the sides. The loss of Mark Boucher to a career-ending eye injury has hampered South Africa's preparation, but this is a team that now has experience of winning all over the world.
When people talk of the greatest series of the modern era, they invariably bring up the Ashes of 2005 and the India-Australia series of 2001. Neither, though, was a true world-title clash. India were a team in the ascendancy in 2001, but had yet to learn how to win away from home. England, though they won in South Africa in 2004, had not won in Australia for a generation and had not tasted success in a Test in India since 1984/85.
For the last time two real champions went toe to toe, you have to go back to 1994/95, when Mark Taylor took Australia to the Caribbean. Had they won in Adelaide two years earlier – they lost by a run – Australia might have ended West Indian dominance of the world game sooner. Instead, a demoralised side went to Perth and were blown away by Curtly Ambrose's scarcely believable spell of seven for one.
In 1994/95, the West Indies won the one-day series 4-1, but were then shocked in the first Test in Barbados. Brendon Julian, the left-arm quick who never quite realised his potential, took five for 77, and there were match figures of eight for 114 for Glenn McGrath.
The teams drew in Antigua and then proceeded to Trinidad for a match that was cricket's answer to the gunfight at the OK Corral. Ambrose and Courtney Walsh bowled Australia out for 128. McGrath's six for 47 kept the West Indian lead to just eight. No matter. Walsh, Ambrose and Kenny Benjamin skittled Australia for 105, paving the way for a nine-wicket win.
It all came down to Sabina Park, where Richie Richardson opened and scored a hundred. Australia were 73 for three when the Waugh twins came together. They added 231. Mark's contribution was 126. Steve batted more than nine hours for 200. Forget VVS Laxman's 281 at Eden Gardens and Kevin Pietersen's 158 at The Oval. Steve Waugh's epic stands alone because it marked the beginning of a new age.
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