Graham Smith leads Proteas from the front
Graeme Smith doesn't score insignificant centuries. South Africa's captain has contributed more runs in successful Test match run chases than any other player in history and his record of not losing one of the 26 matches in which he has reached three figures is unparalleled.
On October 24, he completed his 27th on the second day of the second Test against Pakistan in Dubai – and then proceeded to reach 200 in the afternoon. In the process, he became the second most prolific opening batsman behind Indian legend Sunil Gavaskar, and did everything he could to set up a series-levelling victory and protect the second longest unbeaten away record.
It was an epic of hard work on a dry pitch and in parched conditions in the desert autumn.
For the umpteenth time, the captain answered his own call to "stand and be counted" when the team needed some inspiration. It was rousing and remarkable and will take its place among his favourites if it contributes to victory.
Yet sadly, even something as spirit-raising as his innings cannot remove the acrid, desultory taste of Indian cricket administrators from the collective South African palate.
Indian cricket's role in controlling and defining the fortunes of every other nation in the world extends far beyond the recent, miserable fiasco of their tour of South Africa. Almost every tour in the world outside International Cricket Council events and the biannual Ashes between England and Australia can be, and often is, affected by the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
Even the Proteas' fortunes in the current series were directly influenced by the power of India's administrators, which left the tourists woefully underprepared.
Through no fault of his own, and judged by "normal" standards, Smith was simply "not ready" for Test cricket with just four weeks of physical training following major surgery and two months in a cast, but it is a mistake to judge Smith by any standards other than his own.
For the rest of the squad it was a case of "impossible".
Domestic franchise teams are contractually obliged to play their strongest teams (big-name players) in the Champions League – majority-owned by India's board of control – and that tournament didn't finish until a week before the tour against Pakistan began.
Cricket South Africa (CSA) organised a high-intensity training camp in Pretoria many months ago, but it became apparent that only three players would be available to participate. Smith was one, but he was unavailable for high-intensity work at that stage.
Hashim Amla was another, but he was "match fit" and prepared after a profitable month of first-class cricket with Surrey. And there wasn't much Jacques Kallis could do on his own.
Even if CSA had the will and the means to withdraw their top players and compensate their franchises, they would have faced the wrath – and legal action – of the Indian board. So the Proteas arrived in the desert, played one "soft" three-dayer, and were walloped in the first Test.
Warm-up games essential
"Certainly, we would have loved a series before this," said AB de Villiers before the second Test in Dubai, too polite to remind his audience that Sri Lanka cancelled three Tests in August to accommodate their domestic T20 tournament, which was subsequently cancelled as well.
"Maybe a few more warm-up games, or just a bit more time generally, but it just wasn't possible," De Villiers said.
"One of the secrets about the best teams in the world is their preparation. They believe they are ready when they take the field. But we weren't able to get that right. It definitely played a role in Abu Dhabi, no doubt. We wanted to play more cricket but it just wasn't possible," said the vice-captain.
Also not possible, it seems, was India playing the traditional "show piece" of the summer, the New Year Test match at Newlands. Despite there being 19 days between the end of the Boxing Day Test at Kingsmead and the first fixture of India's tour of New Zealand, the board of control refused. No reason was provided, which suggests rancorous spite, but the lack of a national sponsor to replace Sahara after December 31 may have had as much to do with it.
When money is the sole motive, administrators cannot afford to send their most valuable asset into public view unlabelled.
The Wanderers will now have to market a Test match starting on December 16 rather than January 14, while venues such as East London and Bloemfontein will miss out on a season-changing international fixture. Newlands, Centurion and St George's Park are likely to host the three one-day internationals.
?Such is the venom felt towards Indian cricket at the moment that social media campaigns have started encouraging fans to boycott the tour. It is an understandable, emotional backlash but it would hurt only those who least deserve it – the players and the franchises who face a battle to stay afloat.
For several years Smith and his team rose to the top of the Test pile by performing in spite of their employers, not because of them.
Now is the time for their new bosses to show similar resolve, to believe in themselves and their policies, to maintain their sense of "right and fair", and to remember that autocracy and dictatorship does not last forever. Regimes change.