SA’s thrill is gone

Sunday Times


NOT long ago, one of cricket’s finest teams embarked on a tour. They were the No. 1 test side and mere months previously they had won the World Cup. Whatever could go wrong?

Everything. They lost the first test by 196 runs and the second by 319 runs. Then they were hammered by an innings and 242, and then by an innings and eight.

The sole Twenty20 was won by six wickets. One of the one-day internationals was washed out and another tied. The other three were decided by seven, three and six wickets, all in the home side’s favour.

Before the test series was over the visitors had lost the No. 1 ranking. With it, thanks to a withering slew of injuries, went the heart of their squad.

It was 2011 and that fine team were India, who arrived in England bristling with the talents, skills, achievements and reputations of MS Dhoni, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, and Singhs Harbhajan and Yuvraj.

The parallels with SA’s tour of India are not perfect, but they should be spotted nonetheless.

Whatever happens in the fourth test at the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi, the visitors will still be test cricket’s top team.

Officially, anyway. Because, like BB King told us in 1969, “The Thrill Is Gone”. So is the fortitude and the fierceness.

Yes, the conditions SA have been given have been spitefully poor. Yes, the result of the Nagpur test – where India clinched the series on a stray dead dog’s breakfast of a pitch – would in the real world be expunged and India would not only be fined but also be docked points in the rankings.

But this, of course, is not the real world. It is the world of test cricket, where nothing is as it is talked up to be.

For instance, SA were indeed afforded a decent pitch in the second test in Bangalore – and they lasted just 59 overs for their sub-par total of 214.

Assistant coach Adrian Birrell spoke of “some inexperience in our team; we haven’t had a lot of exposure in these conditions”.

Of the seven frontline batsmen in SA’s squad, Faf du Plessis, Deal Elgar, Stiaan van Zyl and Temba Bavuma had not played a test in India before this tour.

“We’re trying to in practice simulate as much as possible what we’re going to experience in the middle,” Birrell said. “But in the second innings of (the Nagpur test) there was good application, and it was led by Hashim and Faf.

“They applied themselves very well and showed what fighting spirit there is in the team. We could have folded quite easily with a total that was really beyond us, but they put up a good fight.”

Amla and Du Plessis stood firm for 173 minutes in a solid partnership that reminded all exactly who they were dealing with. But it would also have left many asking why, if they could do it, others could not?

Leg spinner Amit Mishra had an answer: “I accept that there is more spin than normal. But (the South Africans) are not able to survive because of their technique. Batsmen have to change according to the game’s demands, just like bowlers do.”

And then there’s Ashwin, as in R, the series’ dominant figure.

“He doesn’t give us any bad balls,” Birrell said. “Maybe that’s been the difference. We’ve dished up a few easy runs for India, and yet we’ve had to fight for every run.”

Fight. Not long ago, SA had plenty. Perhaps it died in Nagpur’s dust.



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