Why aren’t South Africa Number One yet?

  South Africa embark upon English shores this summer for a three-Test series, which in all likelihood will decide which is the world’s top-most Test team – the ultimate accolade of being true world champions.

  England, after a below-par Asian sojourn, have soothed their nerves by seeing off the West Indies whereas South Africa won a rain-affected series in New Zealand back in March. The series has been touted to be one of the most-awaited in recent times.

  While it is England who sit pretty at the top of the Test rankings, it is a bit of a puzzle as to why South Africa have not been able to impose themselves as Number One yet. They were briefly at the top in 2008-09, but that is about it. As far as adaptability to different conditions is concerned, South Africa are indeed better than England.

  The Proteas have, in my opinion, three of the world’s five best bowlers in Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander. Add to that Imran Tahir, who had taken close to 600 first class wickets before finally making his debut at 32, and a couple of talented pacemen in Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Marchant de Lange.

  The batting is as potent with the stylish skipper Greame Smith, who is on the verge of being the most capped captain ever, followed by the legendary Jacques Kallis, the reliable Hashim Amla and the attacking AB de Villiers. They also have the world’s most experienced wicketkeeper, the ever-present Mark Boucher, who might call it a day after the England tour.

Imagesource – in.reuters.com

  So what is not to fear about this imposing South African unit? Undoubtedly, they are the team most capable to dominate Test cricket for a long period amid today’s mad scramble amongst all Test teams as it has been a level-playing field for quite some time now.

  The problem is that the Proteas have not done full justice to their ability. Whereas English teams have struggled in the sub-continent, South Africa have always impressed in such conditions. But somehow they have not been able to win more than one series there since winning in India almost 13 years ago.

  Twice they have taken 1-0 leads in Test series in India – in 2007/08 and 2009/10 – with thumping wins no less, only to eventually settle for draws on both occasions following equally convincing defeats.

  But the biggest hitch is their home form, surprisingly. When they beat Sri Lanka at home last season, it was their first home series victory since 2008/09, when they disposed off Bangladesh.

They had reached their peak when they won in Australia in 2008/09, only for it to be neutralised by a defeat in the ensuing home series against the same opponents a couple of months later. Twice they have had to come back from a first-Test loss in a home series to eventually win it – against West Indies in 2007/08 and India a prior to that.

In fact, barring Bangladesh and New Zealand, they have lost at least once at home to every other nation they have played since 2007/08, the latest being a surprise 208 run loss to Sri Lanka at Durban, which again followed a thumping innings win by South Africa.

  The fact that the two Test series against Australia was drawn was only due a manic session where the visitors notoriously collapsed for 47. The Aussies duly came back to square the series, continuing the trend.

Durban has proved to be a bugbear for the home team of late, with them having to suffer losses there to England, Australia, India and Sri Lanka in the last three seasons. That is why, we were told, that the Boxing Day fixture was done away with for the coming season. 

  With their tendency of choking in limited overs world tournaments already part of cricketing folklore, the South Africans cannot afford a similar pattern in the Tests. If they want to be number one, they need to start converting series leads into series wins, and more importantly, lose much less often in home Tests – which is a hallmark of a champion test team. A team cannot be on top if it is losing a home test every season, which in turn jeopardises it’s chances of a series win. 

  This season might be South Africa’s best chance to cement the number one spot. They tour to England and Australia – two places where they emerged victorious the last time they played, four years back. Later they host Pakistan and New Zealand.

If they still do not make full use of these opportunities, they may be in danger of being the best side never to have dominated Test match cricket for a sufficient period of time.

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Guest Section – Leg Spin, off spin, mystery spin

Off spinner or mystery spinner?

Right Arm Orthodox’ is what off-spinners are sometimes called as, but today people will be hesitant to use the term.

  Right arm off-spinners have gone from orthodox to unorthodox with many new delivery styles which have made it tough for batsmen.

  Ajantha Mendis, Ravi Ashwin, Sunil Narine are the names that come to mind, and you may find more bowlers in coming months displaying something new and stunning batsmen, even those who play spin very well.

  The question arises, why do spin bowlers need to experiment? The big gap in batting & bowling advantages, especially in limited overs cricket has led to variations. Bowlers are trying to be unpredictable and deceive batsman in different ways and even change their actions.

  Batsmen have responded with their own variations from reverse sweeps to paddle sweeps to even delicate upper cuts and helicopter shots. You may bowl the best delivery in the world and still get hit for a six.

  It is just the spinners who are coming up with mystery deliveries. Pacers actually have a lot to bank upon – speed (and lack of it), swing that helps them a lot in keeping the batsman on his toes guessing. Spinners have options but the difference is the speed at which they bowl.

  With all this mystery, one should not be surprised if one sees tomorrow a bowler addressed as a ‘right-arm mystery spinner’.

  Sunil Narine has done a good job so far, not just containing runs but picking wickets too. He will give the West Indies the edge along with likes of Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo at the forthcoming World T20 in Sri Lanka. However, the problem that hits many cricketers who start on a healthy note is the second-season blues.

  The previous ‘mystery-spinner’ Ajantha Mendis burst on the scene with a six-wicket haul against India in the 2008 Asia Cup final and was called the perfect successor to the great Muttiah Muralitharan. However, few years down the line, he is in a corner with his mystery being neutralised and even injuries creeping in.

  Today, spinners are plenty but they are mostly just of two types – right arm off-spin and slow left arm, both referred to as ‘orthodox’. There are fewer of the ‘unorthodox’ spinners namely the right arm wrist spinners & the left am chinamen. There has not been any chinaman on the international stage since Brad Hogg.

  Whenever Hogg has played in T20 leagues like the Big Bash, BPL & IPL, batsmen have found it tough to pick his wrong’uns. This shows the batsmen’s inexperience against chinaman bowling because you won’t find it anywhere – not even in spin-dominated countries, domestic teams, and in the nets. 

  Also the lack of right arm wrist spinners is a concern, what with only a few like Piyush Chawla and Amit Mishra on the scene and those too are inconsistent in the international arena. Meanwhile, the likes of Steve Smith and Cameron White have focused on their and thus you hardly see proper wrist-spinners any more.

  Off-spinners will continue to experiment and will have to fight for their survival. Australia had to keep shuffling between spinners – they looked settled with Nathan Hauritz for a while before shuffling again and are now persisting with Nathan Lyon. India also have rotated between Amit Mishra, Praghyan Ojha, Piyush Chawla, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, not to forget Harbhajan Singh.

  With such competition for spots in the team, one cannot blame them for tinkering with their deliveries. As long as they are picking wickets it is all good, but when they fail to match expectations, the pressure is felt and they need to think out of the box to get back in groove.

  It will be an interesting battle between Narine and the cricketing environment as he seeks to make his mark. Like the batsmen facing him, cricket fans will be looking forward to see which way it turns – whether more ‘mystery spinners’ will crop up or whether it turns back to the days of orthodoxy.

Simon Katich – One of Australia’s best ?

  Former Australian batsman Mark Waugh has remarked that the recently-retired Australian opener Simon Katich should be remembered as one of Australia’s best batsmen.

  The 36 year old Katich called a day on his first class career, having played his last Test at Adelaide in the 2010/11 Ashes.

  Katich was indeed in great touch throughout the 2009-10 season, first averaging a decent 43 in the 2009 Ashes and then putting a high price on his wicket against Pakistan and the West Indies at home, where he scored a century and four 80-plus scores in nine innings.

  Later in New Zealand, he averaged 91 in two Tests and 47 against Pakistan in England before a slight stutter in form in India. Following that he got injured and eventually dropped and forgotten after two tests in the 2010-11 Ashes. He was not given a fresh contract in spite of being one of the most consistent batsmen over the past two years. 

  Katich hinted at new captain Michael Clarke’s hand in his ouster from the team, although it is generally accepted that the Australian selectors were looking at the future.

  It would not be wrong to say that Katich had much more to offer even beyond the 2010/11 Ashes. After he was axed, Phillip Hughes disappointed at the top while Shaun Marsh, after a successful start in Sri Lanka, failed miserably at home against India.

  For now, Australia have settled on David Warner and Ed Cowan as the opening duo and their reasonably good form has indicated that Katich is certainly not being missed.

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  Katich averaged a healthy 45 in 56 Tests and was seen as a dependable bet at the top of the order following the retirements of Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden. a batsman in the Shivnarine Chanderpaul mould, he amassed almost 20000 runs at an average of 53 in first-class cricket.

  As Waugh pointed out, he could be certainly counted among the best, if not among the greatest. He stood up and delivered when it mattered the most, and had it not been for the success of Hayden and Langer in Australia’s heydays in the 2000’s, would have probably been more accomplished than his statistics say.

  Katich’s 2011 claim of politics resulting in his ouster might not be surprising after all. A few months back, Jason Gillespie had hinted that his being an Aborigine might have resulted in his axing from the Test team.

  For the record, Gillespie had scored an eye-popping 201* as a nightwatchman against Bangladesh in what strangely turned out to be his last international for Australia. 

If they don’t mean it, they shouldn’t say it

   “We will do everything within our limits to protect Test cricket” – random cricket official

  “Nothing can replace the pride of a Test cap” – modern-day international cricketer

  “Country over club, ALWAYS” – most probably, a Twenty20 mercenary 

  We have all surely heard such statements countless number of times, as everyone worth their salt is trying hard to persuade true lovers of the game that Test cricket is the real deal. Without doubt it is the real deal, as the above statements suggest.

  The only glitch is, that nothing can be farther from the truth, at least for these gentlemen who have uttered such comical words time and again to show that they are not going to prefer IPL over international cricket, not yet. 

  Hypocrisy has been rife throughout the cricket world for a long time now, but two recent happenings have completely exposed the damn lies that Test cricket lovers are being subjected to.

  Any South African who loves his cricket will tell you how the Boxing Day Test is of sentimental value to him. It is the last Test to played in the year and a red-letter event in the cricket calendar. One fine morning, the powers-that-be mindlessly decided to cull the traditional fixture off the itinerary, and instead allot a meaningless Twenty20 game.

  What is worse that Durban have not been given a single Test out of the five that South Africa are hosting this season. The reason comes across as most bizarre – the officials maintain that since the home side has a poor record in Boxing day Tests of late, the fixture has been replaced!

Image(source – espncricinfo.com)

  The second happening is much more serious, and it has completely debunked the validity of the nonsensical tripe that a few Test cricketers churn out.. ‘Test is the real test…’. Really? No! The real test is how much you are taken for at the latest IPL auction. Now, THAT is pressure.

  For those who do not know, it is almost certain that New Zealand will be without their top players for the first Test (yes, out of two Tests, again) in England in 2013, as it clashes with the IPL. Country or club, anyone?

  For sure, these cricketers, mostly from teams like the West Indies and New Zealand, earn only a fraction of what they earn in the IPL while playing internationally. That is precisely where the hypocrisy of the officials comes in, as the players are just helpless in the face of the enormous amounts of cash dolled out by Twenty20 leagues across the world.

  But then why cannot they just say, “no, we don’t care about Test cricket, thank you very much” ? It will at least assure the true lovers of the game of the existing scenario instead of the sheer hypocrisy that has become the norm in the post-IPL cricket world.

  The players may not care as they are getting much more money. The officials, even if they care, are bound by contracts and clauses. The ones who will feel cheated are the paying public, who perhaps should get accustomed to watching second-rate international teams battle it out in Test matches.

  It is a sad indictment and and more so, it is highly frustrating. Having said that, one should have a look at England, and how religiously they attend to their home Test season, instead of ‘making themselves available’ for the IPL (at least for now). No wonder, they are top dogs in Test cricket, their drubbing in the Gulf notwithstanding. 

   It is a worrisome fact that countries with cash-strapped cricket boards are succumbing to the Twenty20 menace. Personally I regret today that I actually used to follow IPL until two years back. In actuality, it is indeed beneficial to the players, but only financially. Otherwise, it is a monster threatening to devour Test cricket. 

  Until then, a request to all those who claim to put Test cricket on the highest pedestal – please, if you don’t mean it, just don’t say it. Hypocrisy is annoying, and more so when fans of the game are being taken for a ride.

Cheteshwar Pujara – The future of Indian batting

  For quite some time now, young Cheteshwar Pujara from Saurashtra has been staking claim to be the future number three in the Indian Test line-up. He averages 55 in first-class cricket and has a penchant for making huge scores while showing great amount of patience – a rarity in today’s crash-bang-wallop hitting culture.

  There is even more reason for India to make him the new permanent number three, as questions have been raised as to who would be the most apt replacement for the legendary Rahul Dravid, who retired from the game in March this year.

  Dravid cannot be replaced, that is a given. But Pujara is a worthy candidate for future greatness, if he stays away from recurring injuries. The 24-year-old has so far played only three Tests and no one-dayers, but scored a mature 72 in a series-clinching chase on Test debut at Bangalore against Australia in October 2010.

  The fact that he has not been able to find a place in the limited-overs scheme of things is actually a blessing for India’s Test future, which currently seems to be in doldrums.

  India play ten home Tests and none abroad this season, with New Zealand coming up first in as early as August. For sure, Pujara will be tested, what with England and Australia travelling later in the season.

Image(source – khelmahakumbh.com)

  But the real acid test will be performing overseas, and India do not play an overseas Test until late 2013. However, just yesterday, Pujara displayed Dravid-like grit as he put in a captain’s performance to steer India ‘A’ to a thrilling victory over West Indies ‘A’ in the first unofficial Test at Bridgetown.

  Pujara scored an unbeaten 96, and found a willing ally in seamer Shami Ahmed, as the duo put on 73 for the ninth wicket to ensure a two-wicket win. The visitors were down for the count at 115/8 in pursuit of 186 before Pujara stamped his class and showed great application in batting with a tail-ender. In the first innings too, he scored a classy 50.

  India badly needs classical Test batsmen if they are to work their way up the ladder following the twin Test disasters in England and Australia overseas last season. It would be interesting to see whether VVS Laxman will be picked for the New Zealand series, although I have a gut feeling that the selectors will continue to put faith in him.

  There also is Virat Kohli, India’s new middle-order star, who like Pujara is tipped to be a future batting hope as the Indian team enters a transitional stage. A back-from-illness Yuvraj Singh might just be able to resurrect his fledgling Test career, while Rohit Sharma frustratingly continues to wait in the wings.

  Of them all, Pujara fits the bill the most, and if he stays consistent, he has a long and immensely successful career awaiting him.