x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Rivalry between South Africa and India does not require hype

Off-field controversies in the run-up to the two-Test cricket series between South Africa and India, starting on Wednesday, seem contrived.

How India’s promising young batsmen deal with Dale Steyn’s bowling will be fascinating to watch. Asif Hassan / AFP
How India’s promising young batsmen deal with Dale Steyn’s bowling will be fascinating to watch. Asif Hassan / AFP

Maybe it is all part of some really clever marketing plan.

Perhaps it is a too-smart-for-school scheme to make sure cricket produces some heat and can continue to feel relevant, in the rationale that modern sports need controversy and friction.

The story goes that India coach Duncan Fletcher complained to the TV broadcaster of the team’s tour to South Africa about a package they aired on Virat Kohli being hit by a short ball. The footage, shot during the first ODI, was accompanied by scenes of Kohli practising a pull shot in the nets as well as icing his injury, and it was shown during the washed-out third ODI.

The commentators asked for it to be shown, apparently, with the notion that visual depth would add to a discussion they were having about being struck by fast bowlers.

Supposedly, India were offended by the inappropriateness of the footage and the producer was told so. India denied that they objected to the sequence, though they did confirm that a meeting with the broadcaster was held during the innings interval.

If true, it seems completely bizarre that a coach would object to a broadcaster over editorial content, especially given that the content forms a valid leitmotif for the series: India will likely be peppered with short balls, and there has already been discussion about it, including from Dale Steyn.

Perhaps there is more to it that cannot be seen from this distance, an obscure angle of cultural umbrage being taken. But is the broader story here beginning to sound familiar?

India embark on a big tour, feel aggrieved at some slight, much heat and noise accompany the series and a niggle pervades on and off the field.

Voila, a rivalry is born, another golden goose to be cooked.

This is a strange recent development, since India have become a decent side on the field and the BCCI a power off it.

Sometimes when India travel on big away tours – to England, Australia and South Africa – it does not feel like a tour as much as it does an audition for the Next Big Rivalry, one from which the entire industry of cricket can squeeze more money. That is not to place India as the sole instigator, because the big hosts are geared toward perpetuating that rivalry. That is how they survive and thrive.

They want that seven-match ODI series tacked on their calendar, with maybe two Tests added as an afterthought. If it means a bit of bad blood during a tour, a little something to spice up jingoistic juices, so be it. They want clear themes and easy narratives that can be amplified. “Short balls, eh”, you can hear Kohli asking. “Wait till you come over and we bombard you with spin and dust and bad TV promos featuring myself talking about pride and revenge.”

Suddenly the entire atmosphere on these tours is predicated toward generating, sustaining or elevating a rivalry.

Being India’s rivals, as Australia, England and South Africa know, is a lucrative business.

It is not a coincidence that nothing of this sort emerged in the series against the West Indies. Even without the overshadowing departure of Sachin Tendulkar, it would have passed unremarkably.

Tours to Sri Lanka, as well as death by familiarity, pass without friction. So, too, will India’s tour after South Africa, to New Zealand, most likely.

Meanwhile, the most organic and real rivalry, with the team they cannot currently play – yeah, you know the one – lies in cold storage.

The artificiality of trying to generate some acrimony, one side looking, one side auditioning – and both sides have enough mouth in the field to keep this going – is tiresome. It is not like this contest actually needs any add-ons.

Already there was enough friction between the two boards before the series started. Indeed, there might not have been a series at all.

On the field, the two have produced a wonderful, even sequence of series over nearly a decade. Five series, three in India, two in South Africa, one series win apiece, and the last three drawn. Lighting them up have been multiple passages of outstanding cricket.

A few more are inevitable now. It has the best fast bowler in the world, with a magnificent supporting cast, against an exciting new India batting order.

This does not need anything else.

There is the sell, right there.