Somewhere a little after the crack of dawn yesterday in India, South Africa ushered in a new era in world cricket. The Melbourne Cricket Ground – cricket's own coliseum – witnessed history in the making, as Graeme Smith and his fellow comrades brought the once infallible Australian cricket team to its knees over the course of the last fortnight.
The signs had been ominous for Australia. They had barely managed to keep their nose ahead of India at Sydney in early 2008. At Perth they were convincingly outplayed by a side which sought retribution in the best way possible for the happenings of the earlier test. With the ramparts of Perth exposed, the possibility of putting one over the Australians anywhere else seemed infinitely more plausible. And India and South Africa managed to do just that, with India inflicting a crushing series defeat at home on the Australians a little earlier in the year and South Africa shutting the door on an Australian resurgence at the end of 2008.
So where does this leave India and South Africa - as they now begin a game of musical chairs to reach the summit of test cricket. South Africa have little or no time to celebrate the fruit of their hard work as they immediately play host to Australia in a three test series. The Indian cricketers however, enjoy the rare luxury of nearly three months off the international circuit, with relatively easier pickings - New Zealand in March and West Indies in June, albeit both series being away from home.
Man to man there is little to choose between both sides. Some may even suggest advantage South Africa, given that the Proteas beat India the last time the Men in Blue visited their shores and then drew a series in India on the return leg in the summer of 2008. The relevant thing to be considered here is that the reason for India's steady ascent as a powerhouse in test cricket, over the last year and a half, has been the emergence of suitable opening pairs both in their bowling and batting departments.
In South Africa (end 2006 – early 2007), Ishant Sharma was yet to appear n the horizon, while Wasim Jaffer was looking to cement his place alongside the flamboyant Sehwag. And on the South African tour of India in 2008, both Zaheer and Ishant were ruled out for the first two tests due to injury. The sole test played by the lanky Ishant resulted in an Indian win, with the fast bowler playing a pivotal role - having taken a total of five wickets for the test, on a turning track at Kanpur. Jaffer meanwhile was given the long end of the rope (after a disastrous tour of Australia earlier in the year), but by the end of the series, did precious little to justify his selection.
Now, in Virender Sehwag and Gambhir, India probably have the better opening batsmen between the two sides. Sehwag's natural attacking flair complements Gambhir's doggedness at the crease and their running between the wickets is a delight to say the least. Yet, even with the peerless Sachin Tendulkar gracing the Indian batting line up, the South Africans form a formidable batting side not least because of the fact that they bat deep (Morne Morkel comes in at Number 8 as an all rounder) and in the battle of the wicket keeping batsmen, Mark Boucher has enjoyed success on a more sustained basis when ranked alongside M S Dhoni.
The left arm swing of a rejuvenated Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma's pace and bounce would perhaps put them ahead of the dynamic duo of Steyn and Ntini, but in the towering frame of Morkel and the all round ability of Kallis, South Africa hold the edge in the bowling department. In the battle of the spinners, Harbhajan Singh ranks a grade above the vastly improving Paul Harris. A fair summary therefore is that, South Africa would be better suited for seamer friendly conditions, while India would lap up the opportunity to play on turning dust bowls.
Both sides have a great relationship that exists between captain and coach, but one suspects that the presence of Gary Kirsten in the Indian camp, might prove to be the difference in a later series between the two sides. Be that as it may, the prospect of both sides coming together to do battle is lip smacking. With Australia in a rebuilding phase, Pakistan virtually isolated from world cricket and England showcasing consistency by way of inconsistency – the onus is now on South Africa and India to create a new rivalry, which becomes the marquee event for the game in years to come.
On new year's eve, I wish both teams Godspeed!!!