x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

No clear leader of cricket's Test pack in South Africa

There is no team capable of the sustained the excellence we saw from the West Indies for nearly 15 years and then from Australia for almost a decade.

Dale Steyn reacts as Virender Sehwag, left, and Gautam Gambhir take a run off him at Centurion. Alexander Joe / AFP
Dale Steyn reacts as Virender Sehwag, left, and Gautam Gambhir take a run off him at Centurion. Alexander Joe / AFP

If we have discovered anything over the past week, it is that Test cricket does not have an outstanding side, one that obliterates the opposition home and away with equal ease and ruthlessness.

There is no team capable of the sustained the excellence we saw from the West Indies for nearly 15 years and then from Australia for almost a decade.

Instead, we have four very good sides all capable of beating the other - India, South Africa, Australia and England - and a fifth, Sri Lanka, that needs to lift their performances away from home to be considered part of the elite group.

At the start of the month, England were near-perfect in Adelaide while thrashing Australia by an innings.

They were then staggeringly inept with the bat in Perth as Australia revived the Ashes series with a crushing 267-run victory.

India, who went into the Centurion Test with a healthy lead at the top of the standings, barely managed to take the game into a fifth day.

The innings victory did not flatter South Africa, who were vastly superior with both bat and ball for much of the match.

The one-sided result also gave a clue as to why these contests have never quite captured the imagination like India's tussles with Australia.

Ever since the Eden Gardens Test of 2001, Australia and India have played out a succession of classic matches. Whether it be on turning tracks in India or bouncier pitches in Australia, they have fought each other to a standstill.

Even the recent series, which Australia eventually lost 2-0, could have been so very different had Steven Smith's shy at the stumps not missed by a hair's breadth during the climactic stages of the first Test in Mohali.

In contrast, India-South Africa games have seldom been memorable.

The Proteas lead 12-6 after 25 Tests, and 15 of those results have been sadly one-sided affairs with little by way of edge-of-the-seat excitement.

You have to go back to the Ahmedabad Test of 1996, which India won after a wonderful spell from Javagal Srinath on a worn-out pitch, and the Mumbai game of 2000 - settled by a seventh-wicket stand between Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher - for the last gripping contests between these two teams.

The decisive Cape Town Test on India's last tour here was close on paper - South Africa edged home by five wickets - but such was the meekness with which India capitulated in their second innings that they were never likely to come back into contention.

Despite that and the fact that South Africa racked up 620 for four at Centurion while looking like they were flaying a Sunday-league side, Graeme Smith, the Proteas' captain, is taking nothing for granted.

When it was put to him that India did not seem to possess the bowling required to bowl South Africa out twice, he hemmed and hawed before saying: "We'd like to think we are a strong, powerful batting unit and we can cope with conditions wherever we go."

His wariness is understandable. In recent times, South Africa have made a habit of slipping up after looking like world-beaters.

In 2008/09, they were the first team to win a series in Australia since the West Indies in 1992/93, but in the return leg at home, the pace of Mitchell Johnson and the aggressive batting of Phillip Hughes saw them pulverised at the Wanderers and Kingsmead.

Against England later in the year, they had the better of three of the four Tests, winning only one, and had to share the spoils after England blew them away in Durban.

At Kolkata last February, they collapsed from 218 for one to 296 all out on a belter of a pitch, as India squared the series with an innings-and-57-run demolition job.

In these conditions, South Africa's new-ball pairing of Dale Steyn, the only great fast bowler around right now, and Morne Morkel gives them a definite edge, but as India showed at the Wanderers in 2006, their pace men too thrive when there is bounce and lateral movement.

India now head to Sun City for a two-day break to clear heads after this disappointment and will reconvene in Durban desperately hoping that they can show off the resilience that has been a feature of their cricket in recent times.

Few teams start series as poorly as the Indians, and MS Dhoni had a wry smile on his face when asked why that was the case.

"That's one quality we have," the India captain said, his voice laced with sarcasm. "We don't really do well in the first Test. In most of the series, the first Test has often gone badly, but after that we have come back really well."

They will take encouragement from the latter half of the Centurion game, where they posted the second-highest score made by a touring side in the second innings since South Africa's return from isolation in 1992.

Dhoni will demand an improved display from his pace men in Durban and with Zaheer Khan around to lend his experience, he should get that.

But for India to have any chance, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir need to do what they did on day three at Centurion, and see off the threat of Steyn and Morkel.

With rain about in Durban, and the pitch likely to have grass as well as steep bounce, that will be easier said than done.

 

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