Proteas ready to bloom

For the briefest of moments, when Ishant Sharma summoned up a nasty delivery that jagged back and lifted off a length, Indian fans could con themselves into thinking that the spirit of Perth was back.

Mark Boucher edged behind and South Africa’s resistance was broken. By day’s end Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly had knocked off the 62 needed and all was well in the Indian cricket world again.

Or was it? Graeme Smith made his point subtly after the game when he said: ”If we were playing India at home, and it was 1-1, we would be sitting in our dressing room a touch disappointed.”

What was left unsaid was this: South Africa took more out of a boring draw in Chennai, where India had nothing to cheer other than Virender Sehwag’s triple century, and they were rampant at Ahmedabad, bowling India out in 20 overs on their way to an innings-and-90-run triumph.

Instead of screaming and throwing the dollies out of the pram, South Africa gave India one heck of a game over two days at the deceptively named Green Park. Were it not for a 46-run stand for the last wicket between the free-stroking Sreesanth and the impossibly tall Ishant, Smith and Neil McKenzie would have started the second innings pretty much on even keel.

As it was, a deficit of 60 was too much on a surface where no batsman was ever really at ease. Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman batted with skill and composure on the second day but every so often you would get a delivery that took the top off a grossly underprepared pitch.

Ganguly spoke later of how you just had to shut them out, and his 87, apart from being another chapter in perhaps the most remarkable resurrection since Easter Sunday, was central to India avoiding only their third series defeat at home in two decades.

Any talk of moral victories is frankly ridiculous — but this contest between the two sides most likely to give Australia a proper game suggested it’s South Africa who are perhaps better equipped to maintain a sustained challenge.

India are vastly improved away from home, with Test wins in South Africa, England and Australia in the past 18 months, but their home form is a pale imitation of what it once was, with just eight wins in the past 23 Tests.

Part of the reason has been the pitches. Almost half the games have been drawn, simply unacceptable in a country that now has to bear the responsibility for the survival of Test cricket.

You get either the boring flatbed that puts bowlers and spectators to sleep or the desperate dustbowl, circa Mumbai 2004, when batting becomes a less refined form of Russian roulette. There’s seldom anything in between and India’s new gene-ration of spinners have been horribly exposed on surfaces where ingenuity and variation take precedence over merely spearing the ball into rough that looks like a lunar crater.

Had the South African side contained a spinner more accomplished than Paul Harris, then India’s Kanpur gamble might have backfired horribly. If Messrs Warne, Murali, Vettori or even Panesar had been in opposition, the loss of the toss could have had terminal consequences. Instead, with South Africa’s formidable pace attack also having an average day in enervating 40-degrees-Celsius heat, the gambit became an inspired one.

Their failure to hold on will rankle with South Africa, but this display will surely stand them in good stead for trips to England and Australia. The triumvirate of Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel is as potent as they come, while Harris is ceaselessly accurate despite his lack of Bishan Bedi qualities. Factor in the raw pace of Monde Zondeki and the hit-the-deck outlet that Jacques Kallis provides, and you have an attack to be feared.

The biggest strides though have come on the batting front. McKenzie, who no longer tapes his bat to the dressing-room ceiling, has done a sterling job since replacing the increasingly inconsistent and sozzled Herschelle Gibbs, while both Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers had Smith purring after a series in which they scored heavily.

Three years after he first appeared on the Test scene in the 2004/05 series against England, Amla is a vastly improved player, combining the wristy flourishes that betray his subcontinent roots with a steely determination and greater self-belief.

The one worry for the Proteas is the form of Ashwell Prince, who has failed to reach 50 in eight innings since scoring a fine century against West Indies at Kingsmead.

The talented JP Duminy, who turned 24 this week, waits backstage and could well have a big role to play in England. After the ultimately heartbreaking bridesmaid years under Hansie Cronje, whose record of 27 Test wins was equalled by Smith in Ahmedabad, South African cricket is again eyeing the trousseau and England are unlikely to get away with any of the sloppiness that permeated their displays in New Zealand. — Â

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