At times it’s been men against boys as South Africa wrapped up a Test series in style against an Indian team lacking fight.
India will be sifting through the wreckage of another Test defeat to South Africa, this time by 135 runs at Centurion, trying to final positives as they face more of the same in the final, ‘dead rubber’ Test at the Wanderers.
Perhaps they will point to the fact that they lost by ‘only’ 72 runs at Newlands. But, in the concept of runs scored in that match, that was the equivalent of losing by four wickets (each wicket fell for an average of 19).
At Centurion, defeat probably equated to five wickets (each one averaging 26 in the match). Whichever way you look at it, India have been soundly thumped and their poor form away from home continues to show you what a farce rankings are, given that India are No 1.
India can’t even blame South Africa’s home-ground advantage for surrendering so tamely at Centurion, where they were outbatted – with the exception of Virat Kohli – outbowled and outfielded. Much was said about the Centurion pitch and how it was more a sub-continent surface than a bouncy, pacey track, so that gives the visitors no place to hide.
As early as day one of the opening Test at Newlands I ventured that I saw no other result other than a 3-0 whitewash to South Africa. Sure, many might have believed it to be a premature call, but it was apparent as early as then that there is a gulf between these two sides.
Lungi Ngidi’s debut, replacing a 419-Test wicket legend in Dale Steyn, could not have gone any better, with second-innings figures of 6-39 causing world cricket to salivate at the prospect of him and Kagiso Rabada teaming up in tandem for the next decade. Let’s hope the ICC, aka BCCI, don’t relegate South Africa to a succession of Tests against relative top-tier minnows over the next 10 years, because this will be doing international cricket a disservice of seeing two fat bowlers develop into fearsome machines.
World cricket needs strength against strength at Test level, perhaps even a league system on a home and away basis. Because, let’s not forget, India made South Africa look ordinary on dustbowl pitches not too long ago, so a home and away points system could be the answer in determining who is the real No 1.
For now, though, South Africa deserves to bask in the glory of a Test series win on home soil and the hope is that the Wanderers pitch is prepared to showcase the Proteas strength. Pace, bounce and a bit of the green, green grass of home. Put the Four Horsesmen of Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Rabada and Ngidi on that surface and put on a show for everyone.
The obvious dangers facing Ngidi and Rabada is to be used too widely across all formats and become over-bowled. The South African public and some with non-sporting agendas won’t take kindly to Steyn coming back, for instance, at the expense of one of these two tiros, even if it is to try and shepherd Steyn past Shaun Pollock’s Test record return of 421 wickets.
For now, though, there’s another Test to focus on and a whitewash on the cards. Don’t worry too much about the world rankings – even if this series ends 3-0, India will return, Test tails between the legs but still No 1.
Mention has to be made of the improvement in the outfielding of South Africa. Under new coach Ottis Gibson there’s already an intensity that wasn’t visible in their 3-1 away defeat in England last year. There were three superb catches taken, none better than the diving effort in the deep by Morne Morkel to get rid of Parthiv Patel, while those of AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis also deserve mention, and there appear to have been more direct hits and sharp throwing in. Ngidi’s first-innings direct hit and the combination of Ngidi (chasing), De Villiers (throwing) and Quinton de Kock to run out Cheteshwar Pujara was textbook stuff and examples of the energy and precision.
Gibson seems to have breezed through the South African dressing room like a breath of fresh air. Sure, there are areas to work on and there will be harder assignments than knocking over an Indian team that has a soft batting underbelly and lack the stomach for a real fight when it comes to Test cricket away from home. Again, Kohli is an exception to this generalisation.
But when last did we feel so good about going forward as a Test unit? We even got through a Test where the dropping of Temba Bavuma wasn’t met with howls of derision from those who want to see things in black and white. It’s also been a long time since we saw South Africa playing with smiles on their faces. The return of De Villiers has helped immensely to shore up a batting order where Hashim Amla is struggling, temporarily no doubt, and we now see how much he was missed during his self-taken ‘sabbatical’ last year.
Australia, with four Tests in March, will be a different story, but for now celebrations are in order – as should be the case any time a Test series is won. Especially against supposedly the top Test team in world cricket.
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