A full tour of India remains the most exotic of challenges for every other Test-playing nation – or at least the cricketers from Australia, England and now South Africa – because they are the only ones who actually play “full” tours. The rest either jet in and out for three weeks or aren’t invited at all.
There is much more at stake than the result this time around as the Proteas begin their first ever “icon” series – more than three Tests – on Indian soil. It may be both unfair and unrealistic to suggest that the immediate health and wellbeing of Test cricket is at stake, but many are saying just that.
The Ashes thrives in England and Australia but the five-day game is gasping for breath in the rest of the world, at least for live audiences.
Numbers might be on the up for internet followers, but that doesn’t monetise a television production – not yet, anyway. So while television audiences for Tests remain lower than for one-day internationals (ODI) and stadiums are largely empty, it is a product on the wane – even if interest is not.
Test cricket needs India to be engaged and proactive – more pertinently, it needs its people. Surprisingly, for that to happen does not require a home victory. It requires the Proteas to entertain, to court the locals in a manner their own stars cannot – by being close to them.
Chants of “AB D, AB D” during the ODI series provided an extraordinary insight into the different sort of esteem in which locals hold men like AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn compared to their own heroes. The former are real men doing something unreal but recognisable; the latter are more like high priests performing a ritual of life-changing importance, such is the profile and standing of the game in India.
De Villiers has 2.4-million followers on Twitter, Steyn 1.8-million. More than 90% of them reside in India or are Indian, and it’s not just because of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Six years ago De Villiers smashed a sensational double hundred in a Test in Ahmedabad and Steyn collected 5-23 as India were bowled out for 76. Their reputations are both hard-earned and well deserved. Steyn has the best fast bowling strike rate of any to have played in the country, and Indians know it – and love it. De Villiers remains their darling and continues to stun fans in hotel lobbies by cheerfully posing for selfies.
None of this should suggest that the Proteas are on a public relations mission. They will play with the same ruthlessness and pride that has seen them unbeaten away from home in Tests for 14 series spanning nine years, the second-longest ever behind the West Indies, who avoided defeat for 18 series in the late 1970s and 1980s. But the Proteas will do well to glance back at history and remind themselves of the unique challenges India can present.
Only 20 metres of sawdust and gravel could shock today’s players as much as the pitch that confronted them for their first Test on Indian soil at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad. It was cracked, dry mud – so dry, the cracks were breaking at the edges at the end of the first day.
If dismissing India for 223 before lunch on the second day felt like a success, being bowled out for 105 on the fourth to lose by 64 runs was a stark reality check.
Indian cricket politics, so often the bane of touring teams, can work in their favour. The Cricket Association of Bengal was irked by the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s interference in its affairs before the second Test and refused to prepare a similar pitch. Instead, it was evenly grassed and more South African than Indian.
Gary Kirsten scored a hundred in both innings and Lance Klusener produced his astonishing 8-64 on debut to blast the tourists to a series-levelling 329-run victory.
But things were more typical for the decider at Green Park in Kanpur, still the most unfamiliar city for visitors today but infinitely more difficult 18 years ago. Paul Adams took 6-55 on another dust bowl wicket to dismiss the hosts for 237, but Mohammad Azharuddin conjured a magician’s 163 in the second innings, with the ball bouncing unevenly and turning sideways, and South Africa were hammered by 280 runs. The pervasive smell of tanning leather and the wretched hotel made life even worse.
India are not afraid to gamble with conditions and the toss. They still back themselves in extreme conditions. At the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, however, they were undone on the point of victory by the fearlessness of one man.
A painfully low-scoring Test match, dominated by spinners, came down to South Africa needing 163 to win. At 115-5, with Jacques Kallis utterly becalmed and requiring every ounce of his skill to survive, India were hot favourites.
A young Mark Boucher strode to the crease and swept virtually every ball, abandoning caution for a high-risk, high-reward approach. His unbeaten 27 from 32 balls was one of the best innings he ever played. Kallis had 36 from 129 balls when victory was secured.
Much disappointment was expressed about this being just a two-Test tour, but South Africa made an emphatic statement by thrashing their hosts by an innings and 71 runs at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru (Bangalore). Klusener and Kallis made 90s and Nicky Boje claimed a career-best 5-83 to go with his 85 runs as nightwatchman.
Kanpur, again. It was difficult to know whether it was normal weather or pollution that robbed the match of many hours at both the beginning and end of the day. But the air made one’s eyes water.
Andrew Hall, a makeshift opener, batted into the third day for his 163 from 454 balls – just the sort of bloody-mindedness that coach Ray Jennings enjoyed. Draw. Everyone happy to leave.
Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, this time, was perfect for India. South Africa failed to capitalise on winning the toss and nobody contributed meaningfully to Kallis’s 121. India took a 106-run lead and, as so often happens, the game accelerated rapidly on the final two days with Harbhajan Singh bowling India to victory with 7-87.
Lifeless, batting-friendly pitches can still produce results and Virender Sehwag’s memorable 319 from just 304 balls caused many a flutter before the first Test was drawn at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai.
Hashim Amla made 159 and 81, but Neil McKenzie was required to add an unbeaten 155 to his first-innings 94 to make sure the game was saved.
Steyn’s 5-23 in the second Test in Ahmedabad was seen as poetic justice. The inaugural season of the IPL was being launched and the Indian players were awash with promotional activity and photo shoots. The hosts were bowled out for 76 in exactly 20 overs.
De Villiers then smashed 217 – he would almost certainly have made 300 had an unseasonal rainstorm not deducted four hours from the game – and everyone was reminded of what makes Test cricket different.
Kanpur, again. Kirsten, now head coach of India, said it was the worst first-day Test pitch he had ever seen. But despite winning the toss, South Africa could only muster 265. Sourav Ganguly made a streaky 87 in India’s reply of 325 and that, effectively, was that. The tourists were rolled for 121 in the second innings and lost by eight wickets.
Amla dominated the series with scores of 253, 114 and 123 not out, but South Africa could not protect their hard-earned innings victory in the first Test at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in Nagpur and succumbed to an innings defeat in the second Test at Eden Gardens. Having been 218-1, the Proteas were bowled out for 296 and then watched helplessly as Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman all scored centuries for a total of 643-6 declared.
The overwhelming lesson is: you don’t get many chances in India and if you don’t take them, you suffer.