From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.02 :: Jan. 10, 2009
India and South Africa are competing for the top position in the rankings. Not that it is ever wise to forget about a sporting nation as proud and competitive as Australia, but it has run out of great cricketers, bowlers and luck. Bad habits creep in during prosperous periods only to be exposed in downturns.
In the case of Australia, the competence of selectors and coaches has been called into question. It is hard to see the team rallying till a tiring old guard has been replaced by fresher minds. Both India and South Africa have managed fading champions better than the Aussies.
India and South Africa are well matched. Of course, it starts with captains. Graeme Smith and Mahendra Singh Dhoni command respect. Captains can be judged by the response of their teams in times of trouble. India has held its nerve under its gloveman whilst the Proteas fought back twice from apparently hopeless positions to win Test matches down under. Clearly, these leaders instil faith in their players, as well as a sense of belonging. In weak teams it is every man for himself, but under proper leaders the players forge a formidable bond. Considering the complications and expectations encountered in these countries it is a mighty achievement. Neither man enjoys the luxury of simply turning up at a match and saying “righto boys, let’s get stuck into this mob.”
Smith had to learn about leadership on the job. At first he was headstrong but he has become patient and diplomatic without weakening his grip. Not until the ground had cleared in Melbourne did his team reveal the depth of its passion as suitably merry players charged onto the field, formed a cluster and sang ribald songs.
Dhoni has always been comfortable as a leader and players of all ages respect him. That he has trounced Australia home and away speaks for itself. Both men dared to believe. Much can be told from the performances of newcomers. Far from looking strained, they are immediately accepted and respond with strong showings.
South Africa and India also have the best batting orders around, with several players at the peak of their powers and a few emerging youngsters. Jean-Paul Duminy’s innings in Perth and Melbourne were astonishing in their skill and ambition, and he’s the novice. It is the same with the Indians.
These fellows are not happy with fifties. They aim to score hundreds and win matches. Gautam Gambhir does not settle for contributing, does not ride in the slipstream of celebrated colleagues. He reaches fifty and takes a fresh guard. None of them has ever been intimidated by reputation.
The main difference between the contenders lies in the bowling. Both sides field an incisive new ball attack but thereafter the South Africans rely on pace whereas the Indians turn to spin. Dale Steyn is probably the most dangerous seamer around but the Indian speedsters are more consistent. Harbhajan Singh gives his team an advantage in spin but on the other hand Jacques Kallis gives his side a genuine fifth bowler.
South Africa catches superbly and runs between wickets better than their rivals. Asked to choose a composite side, I’d plumb for Smith, Sehwag, Gambhir, Tendulkar, Kallis, De Villiers, Dhoni, Harbhajan, Steyn, Ishant and Zaheer but most of the positions are closely contested.
Arguably the Indian team has an edge in class but South Africa’s might last longer. Meanwhile Sri Lanka keeps playing good cricket. For the first time in thirty years the position of the world’s best team is open to debate. It’s good for the game. Hereafter, the title will change hands every few years.
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