TELFORD VICE, Bangalore
THE last time SA lost a test series on the road, president Thabo Mbeki was more than two years away from suffering a fate similar to a truckload of faulty vacuum cleaners.
Then, SA were captained by Ashwell Prince and their XI included other mothballed names like Andrew Hall and Nicky Boje. Of that side, only Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers continue to rage hard at the highest level.
Sri Lanka chased down 352 to win by a solitary wicket in Colombo on August 8 2006 and complete a 2-0 series sweep. If that seems a long time ago in every sense, that’s because it is: 3394 days and 80 tests have since come and gone.
SA have won 43 of those matches in the course of racking up 19 victories in 29 series. They have been beaten in a rubber just twice – both times by Australia and both times at home. Among their 17 losses, only six have been suffered on foreign fields.
But half of that unhappy half-dozen have been inflicted in India. And here SA are again, in India and up against opponents who are one more win away from making SA know how Mbeki must have felt when he was recalled.
Whatever happens in the third test, which starts in Nagpur on Wednesday, and Delhi, where the series is scheduled to end on December 7, SA will not be dislodged from the perch atop the rankings they have occupied for 40 months since August 2012, except for three months last year when Australia snuck up there.
That, of course, is not how this Shakespearean stuff called test cricket works.
Much has changed in the four weeks since SA won the deciding match of the one-day series, when AB de Villiers spoke of some of his players “knocking on the door of greatness”. India stooped to unseemly squabbles with groundsmen.
A month on and even the famously impervious Hashim Amla is starting to show signs of mortality.
“I don’t see a lot of positives to take out,” Amla said after four days of the second test in Bangalore were washed out. “But every time there is a disappointing session or a disappointing day, reflection happens and that reflection is probably more valuable than most things.”
That’s not quite grasping at straws, but it’s a long way from the aggressive captain Amla has shaped up to be.
It’s also starkly different from how Amla’s Indian counterpart, Virat Kohli, another leader who keeps his eye on the jugular, saw things going into the third test: “The momentum, I don’t see any change in that; the mood is absolutely the same that we had in Mohali (where India won inside three days).
“We … bowled the No. 1 side out in under three sessions (in Bangalore) … on
a decent batting wicket with no demons.”
But demons there were – in the heads of a SA team who no longer play like cricket’s ultimate road warriors and to hell with injuries, opponents and conditions.
Instead, SA have been as tentative as Mbeki was mealy-mouthed. And it could get worse: 49 years ago today a sharp dressed man in downtown Dallas smiled and waved and tried to find the positives. His name was John F. Kennedy.