IN FOCUS – A mouth-watering showdown in store at Newlands

  Considering the discouraging last few months of corruption charges in the sub-continent, bullying of the have-nots at the ICC and myriad hotch-potch two-Test series, the denouement of the Test season could not have been more refreshing. The three-Test series between South Africa and Australia is locked at 1-1 after two duels, and the finale is set to begin at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday, 1st March.

  It has been a fascinating series so far between the two best teams in the world. The pre-series hype had centered around the battle between the pace attacks, and connoisseurs of the game have not been disappointed. It has indeed been a pleasure to watch the top pace bowlers in the game battle it out in a high-quality Test series, which has again confirmed the tendency of an Australia-South Africa rubber to churn out the most hard-fought Test cricket. And thankfully, unlike the last time Australia toured South Africa (in 2011-12, when a two-Test series was drawn 1-1), we do have a decider to look forward to and it promises to be a cracking contest.

  Mitchell Johnson, fresh from his domination of England, continued in the same vein in the opening Test at Centurion as he ran through the world champions at their own fortress – South Africa had lost just once in 18 Tests at the venue since re-admission before this – en-route to a career-best match haul of 12/127 as Australia triumphed by 281 runs. Greame Smith’s men had been ambushed by the mustachioed paceman who extended his wickets tally to 49 in his last six Tests. 

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????    Round one went to Australia and Mitchell Johnson, who rattled South Africa on a juicy Centurion track in the first Test (source – australiantimes.co.uk)

  On a pitch conducive to his bowling, Johnson damaged the home team, both physically and mentally; at times posing a real threat of injury even to top-order batsmen. On top of that, the visting batsmen clearly outscored their home counterparts and it seemed like after an unbeaten run of five years, South Africa had met their match in Australia again. For the record, the last time South Africa lost a series was against Australia at home in 2008-09, and a certain Mitchell Johnson was the player of the series.

  South Africa’s meek surrender to a team who was until recently a wreck in overseas Test matches over the last year predictably raised questions about their world champion status. Smith himself fell twice to Johnson, his nemesis who had already injured him twice before. While Johnson was able to extract enough bounce from the Centurion surface, South Africa’s world-class unit was worryingly found wanting. In short, it was a disastrous way to start off the series and critics already began to sharpen their knives to signal the end of Proteas domination and start of another Australian era. Or so they thought. Time and again, South Africa have proved to soothsayers their amazing ability to bounce back. One has to look no further than their last two series – at home against India they almost converted inevitable defeat into a world-record victory at the Wanderers before sealing the series at Durban. Against Pakistan in the UAE, they levelled the series coming from behind to protect their undefeated run.

  One swallow does not a summer make. Johnson might have bounced out South Africa at Centurion, but now he had to contend with a slow pitch at Port Elizabeth for the second Test. South Africa swiftly sprung into action after their opening loss, firstly by denying Johnson another juicy wicket on a platter; secondly, by dropping their inconsistent spinner Robin Peterson in favour of Wayne Parnell to complete an all-pace attack with the trio of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander. As it happened, South Africa showed the determination worthy of a champion team to cruise to one of their best victories of recent times. Smith, who was panned for electing to field at Centurion, did all things right this time as far as his captaincy was concerned. With overcast conditions predicted on the final day, Smith opted for a declaration early on Day 4, setting Australia a target of 448.

  Openers David Warner and Chris Rogers amply showed that there were no demons in the pitch by rattling off 126 at more than four an over. With a session to go on the fourth day, the score read 141/1 and the match would surely go to the fifth day? But the South African bowlers showed why they are the best in the world in the final session. The ball was scuffing, the pitch was getting slower. Morkel came into his own, suddenly looking like bringing life to a dead pitch. He removed Alex Doolan thanks to a stunning catch from the captain. One could sense the steely determination of the Proteas now, stuff that has made them unbeaten over the last half a decade. Philander condemned the Centurion centurion Shaun Marsh to a pair by trapping him first ball, and then arrived Steyn – angrier than usual – raring to have a crack.

dale-steyn-south-africa-port-elizabeth-cricket-brad-haddin-australia_3089230   Round two went to South Africa and Dale Steyn, who produced a memorable spell on Day 4 in Port Elizabeth to cause Australia’s startling collapse to defeat (source – skysports.com) 

  What followed was one of the best displays of reverse swing bowling in recent memory. Steyn’s pace bowling mates had created enough pressure on the Aussies and South Africa had their tails up. The outswinger got rid of Michael Clarke, the very next ball a beauty of an inswinger dismissed Steve Smith. The Steyn which we missed at Centurion was back, and in the midst of a red-hot match-winning spell. As if this was not enough, Brad Haddin found his middle stump destroyed four overs later by another Steyn-gun, this time it was the late reverse swing that made the delivery unplayable.

  Australia slid quickly, and went on to lose by 231 runs, part-timer Dean Elgar snaring last man Nathan Lyon to bring the curtains down on a manic session and a highly satisfying Test match. Steyn finished with 4/55. If these figures do not convey any sensational implosion, 9 wickets for 64 in 30.4 overs surely do. The band at St. Georges was well and truly alive, and so is the Test series. Ahead of the decider, South Africa will gain a lot of inspiration from their Cape Town stats – they have won eight and drawn two of their last ten Tests at the venue and the last time Australia batted here, they were skittled for 47 in that famous game in 2011-12.  

  Not just Australia and South Africa are level with each other. The two bowling attacks are as well. First round to Johnson, second round to Steyn. Bounce ruled at Centurion, swing reigned at Port Elizabeth. Though it can be said that South Africa have the edge, given how they bowled on a barren wicket. On the batting front, Australia will have more issues to sort out, none more so than Clarke’s form – the Australian captain has gone 11 innings without a fifty. Fittingly, the finale will be played before the best crowd of the summer, with the Newlands faithful, who were robbed of their New Year’s Test by the antics of the BCCI, expected to flock to the ground in droves. 

  Indeed, Cape Town promises to be a rip-roaring knockout. The series is at stake and both teams will go all out to subdue each other. It has to be one of the most awaited matches in recent times. South Africa – who will be chasing their first home victory against Australia since 1969-70 – have the momentum, but you never know what might happen. 

  Looking forward to a memorable end to the Test season. Long live Test cricket!

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VIEWPOINT – A rearguard to remember

  Over the years, the glorious game of Test cricket has churned out moments that are forever destined to be part of a nation’s psyche. To name a few, for England, the Ashes victories of 1953, 1981 and 2005 stand out. For Australia, the three Ashes whitewashes and a golden run in the 2000’s are a matter of pride. India’s moments of glory came against England in 1971 and Australia in 2000-01. For New Zealand – the least populated of all Test nations – the wins over England in 1977-78 and Australia in 1985-86 were moments to cherish.

  The Black Caps can claim to have added another great chapter to their modest – yet gutsy – list of performances which are likely to go down in the history of New Zealand’s sport as a whole. A brilliant home summer for them ended yesterday with a 1-0 series victory in the two-Test series against India. This was their first series win against India in eleven years. That they managed to stave off India’s charge to level the series with an epic comeback through captain Brendon McCullum and wicketkeeper Bradley-John Watling was indicative of the fighting spirit of the side, and the duo’s record partnership is the cherished performance I am referring to.

  Few teams would have resisted the opposition for even a day, let alone draw the Test, at a score of 94/5 just after lunch on the third day, still requiring 152 more just to avoid an innings defeat. That was the perilous position New Zealand found themselves in in the second Test at Wellington’s Basin Reserve. After scoring a 40-run win in the opening game at Auckland, McCullum asked for green top to be rolled out at the Basin in a bid to rattle the Indians and sweep the series. But just two sessions into the game, the decision was appearing to have backfired. Put into the bat, the hosts were bundled out for 192. They then allowed India to go from 165/5 to 438 and ended the second day at 24/1. A tame end to a highly satisfying summer was inevitable when McCullum came out to bat at 52/3. The captain saw two more wickets fall before being joined by Watling at the crease. Around 240 overs were still left to be bowled in the match.

vbk-watling_1759441g   Heroes of Wellington – Captain Brendon McCullum (left) and BJ Watling put on a record 352 for the 6th wicket to help the Black Caps win the series against India (source – thehindu.com)

  Coming into this series, McCullum was battling a prolonged dry run with the bat. In the first Test he smashed a typical 224 to set the tone for his side’s victory. At Wellington, he was in danger of being criticised of undue bravado in taking a risk with the pitch when he could have easily aimed at playing it safe. The summer had been great – a convincing Test series win against the West Indies, a rare ODI sweep of World Cup champions India and now a Test series lead against India. A defeat at the Basin would certainly mean that a bit of the sheen would be taken off the hard work the Black Caps have put in in the last few months.

  A determined McCullum was not going to surrender so easily. With able support in the tenacious Watling, the two set about on the onerous task of saving the Test. Over by over, session by session, the scoreboard ticked on. India’s captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni grew restless by the hour. Indian shoulders began to droop, their bowlers began to get tired. Sessions came and went, but the two proceeded on undeterred. Hardly giving a chance, there were plenty of leaves with the odd boundary here and there. Will power and grit was on ample display on the third and fourth days of the Test. Milestones were passed, the lead was achieved. An epic was being played out in front of a tense but appreciative crowd. Just one breakthrough and the floodgates would open, India would have thought. But it was not to be.

  When India claimed New Zealand’s 5th wicket, the score was 94 just after lunch on Day 3. The next wicket, that of Watling, fell 123 overs later, just after tea on Day 4. Between these two dismissals, McCullum and Watling had etched their names in cricket folklore, adding a world-record sixth-wicket partnership of 352. In a most awe-inspiring manner, a certain defeat was now being converted into a very possible chance of victory. Seldom in modern times has a Test turned around in such a manner because of just one partnership. Watling might have fallen – for a heroic 367-ball 124 in 510 minutes – but McCullum was not done by any means.

  Along with debutant James Neesham – who smote 137* of his own off India’s beleaguered bowlers  – for company, McCullum set his sights on becoming the first ever New Zealander to score a triple hundred in Tests. He achieved the dream number with a late cut boundary early on the final day as the Wellington folk applauded him with collective delight. It was most heartening to know that people had queued up early in the day outside the ground to watch the milestone moment unfold. Among others, father Stu was in attendance as well. This was a moment for the ages, and an innings of character which will never be forgotten by the cricket world. When he was finally out for 302, he had batted for 775 minutes and faced 559 balls – the longest Test innings in terms of minutes by a New Zealander and the eighth longest overall. New Zealand went on to their highest ever total of 680/8 and India managed to hold on to a draw.

zc185974-24802608-640-360  Brendon McCullum acknowledges the crowd after scoring a monumental match-saving 302 – the first triple ton by a New Zealander – against India at Wellington (source – yahoo.com)

  The McCullum and Watling show evoked comparisons with two other legendary rearguard efforts. In 2000-01, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid added 376 for the fifth wicket to overturn a 274 run first innings deficit into a stunning 171 run win over the rampant Australians at Kolkata. In 1990-91, incidentally at Wellington, New Zealand trailed Sri Lanka by 323 on the first innings before captain Martin Crowe and Andrew Jones put on a then world record 467 for the third wicket to save the Test. In that match, Crowe had made 299 and New Zealand totalled 671-4 in the second innings – both national records which were destined to be broken at the same venue 23 years later. Also, New Zealand’s 680 became the highest third-innings total in Test history. The sixth-wicket stand of 352 broke the previous record of 351, added by Mahela Jayawardene and Prasanna Jayawardene for Sri Lanka against India at Ahmedabad in 2009-10.

  The Wellington wicket may have flattened considerably from the third day onward. The Indian bowling attack may not have been the best around. But in Test cricket, it takes just one minor lapse of concentration from a batsman to lose his wicket. And considering the situation New Zealand were in, this partnership becomes all the more spectacular. McCullum’s innings was easily one of the greatest ever played, and arguably the best ever by a New Zealander – a real captain’s knock. To put things into perspective, this was only the second out of 28 triple hundreds to have come in a team’s second innings – the first one being Hanif Mohammed’s brilliant 337 (in 970 minutes, the slowest Test innings)  for Pakistan against the West Indies at Bridgetown in 1957-58.

  What was most bewildering was the manner in which McCullum applied himself at the crease. Adamant not to let India level the series, he belied his reputation as a slam-bang batsman to give a modern-day display on how to build a Test innings in the most dire of situations. He had been wonderful as captain this season, but his batting form was a cause of worry. His 224 at Auckland was typical Brendon McCullum – it came off just 307 balls. At Wellington however, the cricket world finally got to see his other side, and realised the vast reserves of skills, commitment and determination that he could bring out to the fore when his team needed him the most. And all this while battling a stiff back and in the absence of the team’s best batsman.  

  It felt so satisfying to watch McCullum and Watling grind it out to save the Test and win the series for their side. Nowadays, teams are prone to collapsing at the slight sniff of panic, so it makes it all the more noteworthy. This effort proved that if there is the unwavering single-mindedness toward achieving a goal, anything is possible. Indeed, a real lesson in sheer diligence and dedication for all walks of life. 

   We should consider ourselves very fortunate to have watched a modern-day rearguard which will be remembered for as long as Test cricket exists. Take a bow, Brendon McCullum and B.J Watling, and thanks for digging in!

IN FOCUS – A tricky Caribbean challenge awaits for Ireland

  The Ireland cricket team, in spite of its continually outstanding performances at the Associate level, plays a ridiculously few number of internationals against top teams. Tours to Test nations have been even rarer. In a few days time however, Ireland are set to play the West Indies in two T20 internationals (on 19th and 21st February) and a sole ODI match (on 23rd February) in Kingston as their Caribbean sojourn comes to an end.

  In the Nagico Super50, the Caribbean domestic ODI tournament, Ireland undoubtedly looked rusty and found it tough to adapt to vastly different conditions from what they are used to back home. Needing to win two of their three group matches to enter the semifinals, they bowed out after losing their first two games against Guyana and Jamaica rather tamely before pulling off a consolation win against the Windward Islands, the defending champions. Admittedly, Guyana and Jamaica both had established international names in their ranks, but Ireland’s performance in these two games – losses by 114 runs and 6 wickets (with 126 balls to spare) respectively – was certainly not an indication of the team’s calibre and spirit. They showed that they are much better during their 64-run win over the Windward Islands.

  Following this average performance, the international leg of the tour is set to be a real challenge for the Irishmen. Even in the two practice T20s against a second-string Trinidad and Tobago side, they were below-par, winning one and losing one. The West Indies have named a full-strength squad for all the three games and are certain to prove formidable opponents for the visitors. Moreover, the West Indians are the reigning Twenty20 champions, and possess an enviable line-up suited to the shortest format of the game. Star batsman Chris Gayle, fast-bowling all-rounders Darren Sammy, Dwayne Bravo and Andre Russell, and wily spinners Sunil Narine and Nikita Miller are all impact players and Ireland will have to be their best if they are to score their maiden overseas victory over a full member in a bilateral engagement.

dm_140207_COM_CRICKET_Ireland_v_Windward_Islands_Full_Highlights_20140207   Ireland celebrate a wicket during their 64-run win over the Windward Islands in their last game of the Nagico50 domestic tournament (source – espn.go.com)

  The batting was a disappointment in the Nagico50, as team totals of 187, 161 and 179 prove. The bowling was better, with the slower bowlers outshining the pace attack. While left-arm spinner George Dockrell was pretty ordinary except for the final game where he took 3/14, 20 year-old leggie Andrew McBrine has been the find of the tour so far. McBrine took only one wicket in three games, but maintained an economy rate of 3.6 throughout, holding his own while the rest of the attack leaked runs. His tight bowling can be a big asset to Ireland against the power-hitters like Gayle, Russell and Bravo. The batsmen meanwhile need to really pull up their socks – only one half-century was scored in the three domestic games – that being by Andrew Poynter against Guyana. The return of Ed Joyce will no doubt strengthen the line-up, but substantial scores are due from skipper William Porterfield, Paul Stirling and Kevin O’Brien to counter the West Indians. 

  Ireland have fond memories of visiting the West Indies. It was here during the World Cup back in 2007 that the seeds of Ireland’s surge to the top of the Associate table were sown under the able leadership of the recently-retired and much-missed Trent Johnston. All the three internationals will be played at the Sabina Park in Kingston, scene of Ireland’s famous win over Pakistan and tie over Zimbabwe seven years ago, results which enabled them to enter the Super 8 round and made a nation notice of its spirited cricket team. Another visit took place in 2010, when Ireland gave a tough fight to the West Indies in the single ODI played at Kingston – defending 213 from 45 overs, Ireland had the hosts at 56/3 before losing by 6 wickets and only 6 balls remaining. Also in 2010, Ireland took part in the third edition of the ICC World Twenty20 in the Caribbean, where they failed to go past the group stage.

73532   Action from Ireland’s first international meeting against the West Indies, at Kingston in the 2007 World Cup. Ireland lost by 8 wickets. (source – espncricinfo.com)

  With the ICC recently approving a few proposals regarding the structure of international cricket, Ireland’s performances become even all the more important if they are to press for Test status. The proposal from the ICC regarding Associates is not too encouraging – the winner of the next Intercontinental Cup has to defeat the lowest-ranked Test nation in order to gain Test status for four years – and this is something which is quite unfair on the Irishmen, for no other team has shown so much promise to become a Test nation and yet they are being asked to wait longer without any proper guarantee. At the same time, Ireland do have to be a lot more effective in the very few overseas matches they get. 

  Less than a year remains for the 2015 World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand. The road towards success in that tournament is extremely vital for Ireland. Compared to Test nations, Ireland get to play very few number of international matches, so they need to make the most of every such opportunity. Following the series in the West Indies, Ireland only have the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh in March and two home ODIs against Sri Lanka in May as international fixtures before the World Cup. This is hardly enough for a nation yearning to genuinely become the eleventh Test nation. 

  All said and done, the short series against the West Indies on their own turf will prove to be a tricky challenge for Ireland. In 2013 they came agonisingly close to beating Pakistan and England in home ODI’s. If they do manage to actually win in one of the games in the Caribbean, it will do a world of good for their quest towards Test status.

  Ireland squad: William Porterfield (capt) (Warwickshire), Alex Cusack (Clontarf), George Dockrell (Somerset), Ed Joyce (Sussex)*, John Mooney (North County), Tim Murtagh (Middlesex), Andrew McBrine (Donemana), Kevin O’Brien (Railway Union), Niall O’Brien (Leicestershire), Andrew Poynter (Clontarf), Max Sorensen (The Hills), Paul Stirling (Middlesex), Stuart Thompson (Eglinton), Gary Wilson (Surrey), Craig Young (Bready)

  West Indies ODI squad: Dwayne Bravo (capt), Darren Bravo, Miguel Cummins, Kirk Edwards, Chris Gayle, Jason Holder, Nikita Miller, Sunil Narine, Kieron Powell, Denesh Ramdin (wk), Marlon Samuels, Darren Sammy, Lendl Simmons.

  West Indies T20 squad: Darren Sammy (capt), Samuel Badree, Dwayne Bravo, Andre Fletcher, Chris Gayle, Sunil Narine, Denesh Ramdin, Ravi Rampaul, Andre Russell, Marlon Samuels, Krishmar Santokie, Lendl Simmons, Dwayne Smith.

Ireland’s record vs West Indies in Internationals:-

in ODI’s – Lost by 8 wickets at Kingston, 2006-07; No result at Dublin, 2007; Lost by 6 wickets at Kingston, 2009-10; Lost by 44 runs at Mohali, 2010-11.

in T20I’s – Lost by 70 runs at Providence, 2010; No result at Colombo, 2012-13. 

IN FOCUS – Australia in South Africa Test series 2013-14 : Preview

  Fittingly, the last Test series of the 2013-14 season is also the most eagerly awaited. And for a change, it is not a two-Test rubber. Australia v South Africa has probably produced the most hard-fought cricket ever since the latter’s readmission into the international fold, and expect it to be no different this time.

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The Matches and the Grounds

  The series will commence with the opening Test at Centurion’s SuperSport Park from February 12-16. The St Georges Park in Port Elizabeth will play host to the second Test from February 20-24, while the final game will be contested at Newlands in Cape Town. Australia have played only once at Centurion, when they lost by 8 wickets in 1996-97. At Port Elizabeth, Australia have three wins and two defeats from five Tests. At Cape Town, the visitors have a formidable record – nine wins and three defeats from 12 Tests, although South Africa have won the last two encounters at this ground. For South Africa, Centurion has been a fortress – they have 14 wins and just one defeat in 18 Tests played. Cape Town has been a favourite too for the Proteas since readmission – 18 wins and three defeats (all against Australia) in 26 Tests.

The Teams and the Captains

  South Africa – Graeme Smith (capt), Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Dean Elgar, Rory Kleinveldt, Ryan McLaren, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Alviro Petersen, Robin Peterson, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Thami Tsolekile.

  South Africa’s biggest challenge will be to cope with the retirement of Jacques Kallis. The legendary all-rounder was worth two world-class players for skipper Greame Smith in the past decade, and his boots will be impossible to fill. The most likely new No.4 is Faf du Plessis, who has shown enough temperament to be worthy of that slot. From the squad which beat India in December, leg spinner Imran Tahir misses out, while fast bowling all-rounders Ryan McLaren and Wayne Parnell have been brought in. The Proteas have been by far the best team in the world for quite some time now – they have not lost a single series in the last five years, a feat few teams have achieved over the years. They undoubtedly have the best pace bowling attack in the world, with Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel forming a deadly trio. Add to that a batting line-up reading Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Smith and du Plessis; and you see why South Africa are the world champions. The Australians can be expected to go after spinner Robin Peterson to get some quick runs.

  Smith has now served as South African captain for more than a decade, and is currently blessed with a world-class unit. Besides his invaluable leadership skills, he also brings sheer guts and determination to the team through his role as opening batsman, and is indeed someone whom juniors can look up to. Under his captaincy, South Africa have not lost a series since 2008-09, and even more remarkably, have not lost an away series since 2006. He has had his share of forgettable series defeats to Australia at home, and this might just be the series to set the record straight.

  Australia – Michael Clarke (capt), Brad Haddin (vice-capt), Jackson Bird, Alex Doolan, James Faulkner, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson, Shaun Marsh, Nathan Lyon, James Pattinson, Chris Rogers, Peter Siddle, Steven Smith, David Warner, Shane Watson.

  Australia are fresh from the ruthless hammering of England in the home Ashes, and face their sternest test when they square up against the mighty South Africans. Michael Clarke, just like his opposite number, will bank upon his pace attack of Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle to make early inroads. The top-order batting did not always look convincing against England, and that is an area Steyn and Co. will look to exploit. Having said that, the reliable Chris Rogers and the swashbuckling David Warner form a good opening pair, with Shane Watson, Clarke and the fast maturing Steve Smith to follow. A calf injury has ruled out Watson from at least the opening game, which means Alex Doolan and Shaun Marsh are likely to play, with one of them at No.3. Brad Haddin at No.7 brings real value to the side, as he showed time and again during the Ashes. Nathan Lyon’s off-spin was very effective against England, and forms a vital part of the bowling line-up even in pace-friendly conditions.

mitchell-johnson_2785329b   Mitchell Johnson will be brimming with confidence and raring to have a crack at the South Africans on their own turf (source – telegraph.co.uk)

  With Clarke at the helm, Australia have been very difficult to beat at home and at the same time, have gone from ordinary to poor in overseas contests. South Africa is one place where the Australians have always enjoyed playing, and Clarke’s aggressive captaincy can pay rich dividends if his team performs the way it did against England. But then again, there is a vast difference between England and South Africa, and Clarke will have to put in all his experience if he and his team is to leave South Africa victorious. He is also the best batsman in the team, and will be expected to shoulder most of the responsibility in facing off against the world’s best bowling line-up.

Head To Head and Recent Record

  The third oldest international rivalry has had a rich history of memorable encounters. Australia enjoy a very good record against South Africa – in 88 Tests played, Australia have won 48 to South Africa’s 20. In South Africa, the two teams have played each other 47 times, with Australia winning 26 to South Africa’s 11. Since South Africa’s re-admission, Australia have won 19 and South Africa 9 of 35 Tests. The most recent series was played in Australia in 2012-13, when South Africa won the three-Test series 1-0. The last series in South Africa took place in 2011-12, when a two-Test series was drawn 1-1. The last time Australia won a series against South Africa was in 2008-09 in South Africa, when the visitors triumphed 2-1 in a three-Test series. This defeat also happens to be South Africa’s last series loss against any team. Australia have not lost a series in South Africa since the latter’s re-admission in 1992, winning four and drawing two of six series.

Form Book and Ranking

  South Africa have been rightfully ranked as the best team in the world since August 2012. But their unbeaten run stretches to way before that – they have not lost a single Test series, home or away, since 2008-09 (winning eight and drawing six series since then). Further, they have lost just one out of their last 25 series dating back to 2006 – a feat that even the 2000’s Australians could not manage. The Proteas’ most recent assignment was the 1-0 home success in the two-Test series against India. Before that, they came from behind to level the two-Test series against Pakistan in the UAE. In the last nine years, they have lost only two series at home, both to Australia. Their overseas record is even more awesome; they have not lost an away series since 2006.

  Australia are placed 3rd on the rankings table, and a series win against South Africa will put them into the 2nd position. However, their recent form suggests that they are already the second-best team in the world. The 4-0 shellacking in India a year ago was followed by a 3-0 defeat – in spite of a much-improved performance – in the Ashes in England. However, these losses were neutralised in style by a complete annihilation of a hapless England in the return Ashes at home. Australia’s last series in South Africa ended in a 1-1 draw in 2011-12, and they are yet to lose a series there since the Proteas’ return to the international fold. Australia’s last overseas series win came in the Caribbean in 2011-12. Since then, they have lost seven out of nine overseas Tests, even as their home record remained healthy.

Players To Watch Out For

647001-dale-steyn (1)    If Australia are to succeed in South Africa, their batsmen will have to counter the threat of the modern-day great Dale Steyn (source – news.com.au)

  Given the result-oriented pitches and the two best bowling attacks in the world, this series is likely to be a big challenge for the batsmen. It is no surprise therefore that the series is being billed as the battle of the pace attacks. Leading South Africa’s charge will be the modern-day great Dale Steyn. He keeps on getting better and is destined to go down in history as one of the best fast bowlers of all time. In the recent series against India, Steyn was blunted a bit in the opening Test, but just when the team needed him the most, came back roaring with a nine-wicket match haul in the second Test in Durban on a not-too-helpful track. He will be looking to keep Australia’s batsmen on their toes from the word go with his breath-taking speed, away movement and potent reverse swing.

  Australia’s direct answer to Steyn is Mitchell Johnson. The left-arm quick had a dream comeback in the home Ashes, where he ripped through England to take 37 wickets at 13.97  as his side cruised to a 5-0 whitewash. Written off by many over the last few years, Johnson has risen to become Australia’s bowling spearhead in a matter of three months. He also has fond memories of Australia’s 2008-09 victory in South Africa, he took 16 wickets in three Tests. Although South Africa’s batting order is much more superior to England’s, Johnson’s searing pace and bounce can bamboozle the very best on a given day. And like Steyn, Johnson is a bowler who can take the pitch out of equation, as shown during his 7/40 against England at the Adelaide Oval.

Prediction

  South Africa definitely start favourites in this much-awaited Test battle. Even when the chips are down, this South African unit has brought out the best in them to avoid defeat, which explains their five-year unbeaten run. Australia will have their moments, but will need to do something special to win the series. I go for a 2-0 victory in South Africa’s favour.

  Looking forward to some top-quality Test cricket. 

IN FOCUS – India in New Zealand Test series 2013-14 : Preview

  Having outplayed India in the limited-overs leg, hosts New Zealand will be buoyed going into the two-Test series. Originally scheduled to be a proper three-Test rubber before a tight calendar meant scrapping one Test at India’s behest, the series provides the visitors with yet another chance to score an elusive away Test win, while the Black Caps will look to build on their recent success.

india-vs-newzealand

The Matches and the Grounds

  Auckland’s Eden Park – scene of the only game that India did not lose in the ODI series – will host the series opener from February 6-10. The second and final Test will be played at the Basin Reserve in Wellington from February 14-18. India are unbeaten in the four Tests they have played in Auckland (two wins and two draws). This will be the first time since 1990 that they will play an Auckland Test. By contrast, their record at the Reserve is poor – four defeats and a sole victory (back in 1967-68) in six Tests, the only draw coming in the third Test of India’s previous visit in 2008-09.

The Teams and the Captains

  New Zealand – Brendon McCullum (captain), Corey Anderson, Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Peter Fulton, Hamish Rutherford, Jesse Ryder, Ish Sodhi, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor, Neil Wagner, BJ Watling, Kane Williamson.

  New Zealand’s squad is the same that beat the touring West Indians 2-0 in December, with the only addition being Jesse Ryder, named as back-up for Ross Taylor, who is set to become a father during the series. Given Taylor’s current form however, his team-mates must be praying that the baby delays its arrival a bit. As for Ryder, he has made a remarkable comeback into the international set-up after slipping into coma last year.

  New Zealand’s biggest strength is their pace attack, lead by the ever-improving Trent Boult and backed by the hard-working Neil Wagner, the incisive Tim Southee and Doug Bracewell. The spin department looks a bit thin, with the talented but raw Ish Sodhi thrust with the role of first-choice slow bowler. India would also be wary of Kane Williamson, who is turning out to be a batsman of true class. His and Taylor’s presence will be reassuring to the Black Caps in case the openers get out early.

  Under Brendon McCullum, New Zealand are shaping up into a good all-round unit, even more so in home conditions. As far as his batting is concerned, he is going through a lean patch – just one fifty-plus score (a century in the Dunedin Test against the West Indies) in the last eleven innings. As captain, he is expected to contribute more with the bat and this series might just signal a return to form.

boult  Trent Boult has grown into a quality fast bowler in just two years, and the series against India will be another challenge that he will relish (source – ibnlive.in.com)

  India – MS Dhoni (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, M Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravindra Jadeja, Zaheer Khan, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Ambati Rayudu, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, R Ashwin, Umesh Yadav, Wriddhiman Saha, Ishwar Pandey.

  India have made one change from the squad that lost in South Africa, with left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha making way for uncapped fast bowler Ishwar Pandey. India drew a few positives in spite of their 1-0 defeat in South Africa, most notably the way their batsmen applied themselves against Dale Steyn and Co. Cheteshwar Pujara confirmed himself as India’s best batsman, while Virat Kohli showed that he was not just a limited-overs specialist. These two will hold the key if India are to put up a good total in New Zealand. Along with them, Ajinkya Rahane and Murali Vijay were the others who impressed in South Africa.

  But the same cannot be said of Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, both of whom have found overseas conditions a whole new ball game altogether. The bowling remains a headache despite the comeback of the experienced Zaheer Khan. As always, the fast bowling is one area where India fall short compared to their opponents. It will be interesting to see which of Ravichandran Ashwin (who averages 74 overseas) and Ravindra Jadeja (who took 6 wickets in the second Test in South Africa) gets the nod for the spinner’s spot. 

  Unless MS Dhoni’s overseas captaincy record is corrected, he will at best go down in history as an average Test captain. If his bowlers continue from where they left in the ODI series, the quest to bag 20 wickets in an overseas Test will become even tougher. His own batting form outside of home has been ordinary, and improving on that is sure to be a challenge. However, he does have the distinction of being only the second Indian captain to win a series in New Zealand, when he led his side to a 1-0 win in their previous visit in 2008-09. Given India’s last ten away match results under Dhoni – nine defeats and a last-gasp draw – that victory seems a long time back.

Head To Head and Recent Record

  Since 1955-56, India and New Zealand have played each other in 52 Tests, the record reading 18 wins for India, 9 wins for New Zealand and 25 draws. New Zealand however hold a slight advantage in home Tests – they have 7 wins and 5 defeats in 21 home Tests against India. The latest series was played in India in 2012-13, when India won a two-Test series 2-0. The most recent series in New Zealand was in 2008-09, when India claimed the three-Test series 1-0 – their first in New Zealand in 41 years. New Zealand’s last Test match and series win against India came back in 2002-03, when they won a two-Test home series 2-0. India have been unbeaten in the last ten Tests against New Zealand (four wins and six draws).

Form Book and Ranking

  New Zealand are certainly a better outfit, at least at home, than their ranking of eighth suggests. They are five points behind 7th-placed West Indies, whom they comprehensively beat in their latest Test series, a 2-0 win (should have been 3-0 had it not been for the Dunedin rain) in the three-Test series at home. Before this success, they were held to a 0-0 draw in Bangladesh and suffered a 2-0 defeat in England, both in two-Test series. Their recent home record is good – only one loss in the last ten Tests. Their series win over the West Indies was their first over an opposition other than Zimbabwe and Bangladesh since 2005-06, when also they had beaten the West Indies at home.

  India have held on to their second position in the rankings in spite of the stark contrast between their recent home and away results and Australia’s Ashes clean sweep. Their latest series was the one in South Africa, where they lost the two-Test series 1-0, performing much better than expected. This was their first overseas assignment since 2011-12. Prior to the series in South Africa, India were unbeatable at home, snatching six victories on the trot (4-0 and 2-0 sweeps over Australia and West Indies respectively). Their last overseas match and series win came in the Caribbean in 2011, when they won a three-Test series 1-0.

Players To Watch Out For

The-sensitivity-of-Virat-Kohli-against-fast-bowling-can-be-exploited-in-South-Africa-said-Ray-Jennings  The aggressive Virat Kohli showed plenty of maturity in South Africa, and going by his good form, New Zealand will be hoping to see his back as soon as possible (source – 9cric.com)

  New Zealand’s success in the series against the West Indies was built around a superb bowling performance from 24 year-old left arm fast bowler Trent Boult. Boult picked up 20 wickets in the three Tests at just 15.4 and a strike rate of 35. In the year 2013, he took 46 wickets in 12 Tests, and has developed into the spearhead of a potent pace attack which can unsettle the best on a given day. He was not part of the ODI series and will be fresh and raring to go at the Indians, who have not exactly shown a lot of keenness for quality fast bowling in recent times.

  Virat Kohli was the only top-order batsman to succeed in the ODI series debacle, scoring runs in sublime fashion as his team suffered one defeat after another. He might have played most of his cricket so far at home, but Kohli showed that he is indeed the real deal with an impressive performance in South Africa. He has made the recently retired Sachin Tendulkar’s No.4 position his own, and in combination with the classy Pujara, poses the biggest threat to New Zealand’s bowlers, in particular the young spinner Sodhi. Kohli might not have got enough support from his teammates in the ODI’s, but come the Test series, his fellow batsmen can be expected to apply themselves better, as shown on the South African tour.

Prediction

  New Zealand, like almost all the other nations, have shown of late that there is no place like home. On the other hand, India have statistically the worst away record among the top eight teams in the last three years or so. It will be difficult for India to bounce back and actually win the series; even though a close contest can be expected, I go for an eventual 1-0 victory for New Zealand.