The big boys are here. Australia is back in India to try and reclaim lost ground and glory. From the look of things, they are well on their way. And, what of India?
The former mace holders of the number one spot in Test cricket have had their once proud noses rubbed in the green in England, smashed in on the sun baked acres Down Under and finally chopped and buried in the dust bowls of the subcontinent. Will this series help Dhoni’s boys grow a new proboscis this spring? Will India win back the Border-Gavaskar trophy and a bit of pride? The point is, it might. But that should be small consolation for a team and a nation aspiring to win back the crown.
The Proteas are the ones wearing it today, and wearing it well, one would say. They are dismembering the resurgent Pakistanis in their backyard with punch and panache that would have done the champion teams of old proud. And I don’t see this team wresting a series from them on current form, at home or away.
The English are next in line and they have already told us what I was meaning to say. Basically, fat chance! Australia is coming in without two of their best who have ridden off into the sunset, and without that precocious new talent who threatens to blow batsmen away soon as he can get his back to hold him up – the sensational Pat Cummins. And yet, I feel they will have the upper hand in the series against India unless… And more on that shortly. For now, back to the list.
Pakistan is getting comfortable up there with the big guns at number four. And they have the nucleus of a side that could emerge as a serious threat to the current podium finishers. They almost gave India a drubbing in the ODIs with their razor edged bowling attack and left the ‘Men in Blue’ bleeding. In the relatively more encouraging environs of a Test match, it doesn’t take much to imagine how wafer thin the current Indian line-up would look against the swing and bounce of Umar Gul, Junaid Khan and the beanpole from Burewala, Mohammed Irfan.
So is the current Indian team going to shake up the ICC rankings in a hurry? If you ask me, it looks highly unlikely. Ok, though I wouldn’t be able to say if the Aussie pacemen would be able to run through the Indian batting on Indian wickets often enough because they are rather new to the conditions, I will go out on a limb here and say that India does not have the fire power to dismiss the Australians twice over more than once in the four match series unless… and here is the unless I was speaking of earlier… unless, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and maybe Shami Ahmed emerge as new and potent forces at this level or, and this is even more unlikely, Ishant Sharma rediscovers his pace and aggression. As for the rest of the attack, it is useful at best.
Cricketing greatness, especially at the Test match level, is possible only if a lot of things fall in place. And greatness isn’t about holding on to a ranking for a few months or even a year or so. Greatness, in Test cricket, is about creating and leaving behind a legacy for generations all over the world to aspire to. It is about dominating the game for a decade or more.
Only truly great teams can do that. Remember Don Bradman’s invincibility in the 1930s-40s, Peter May’s Englishmen in the 1950s, the Sir Frank Worrell and Richie Benaud led West Indies and Australia and their monumental rivalry in the 60s, and then came Ian Chappell’s near dirty dozen who hustled and muscled their way through most of the 70s and in waylaying him and his team, inspired a bruised and battered Clive Lloyd and a bunch of extremely athletic and talented entertainers to become the demonic force that dominated world cricket from the late 1970s right up to the mid 1990s. Then the mantle passed on to the Australians till about 2010. And now the scepter is adrift again, flirting with a few suitors but yet to fall in love again. South Africa though seem the strongest and the boldest of those at the dance. And India for now, results against Australia notwithstanding, would be lucky to get a second look. And here’s why…
Great Test teams need a few essentials. A solid, if not great, opening pair; at least two top or middle order batsmen, who would rank in the history of the game as all-time greats; it would be nice if the team had an all rounder who had the respect of the opposition; a match winning spinner would be wonderful but what a team cannot even pretend to be great without is a pair of fast bowlers who are all-time greats.
All the above mentioned teams had these combinations in some measure or the other. You could say that Clive Lloyd’s and Ian Chappell’s teams did not have a spinner worth remembering (sorry Ashley Mallet, those fingers tweak words better than Kookaburras), but like I said, spinners in the great teams of the past and the future, are wonderful, but not a necessity. Th at is simply because a spinner’s ability to force the issue is a little limited simply because he depends far more than the fast bowler on conditions, to ply his trade effectively. Secondly, a spinner’s effectiveness, and I mean that in his role as strike bowler and not stock bowler on flat belters, wanes as batsmen around the world become more familiar with his craft . Ajantha Mendis, and why even Harbhajan Singh, would be cases in point. Bishen Singh Bedi and Shane Warne would be amongst the exceptions to that rule because while one was magical with flight, the other gave it a rip like none other in the history of the game.
So when you look at South Africa, here’s what you get. A soon to be all-time great batsman in Hashim Amla, a solid opening batsman in Graeme Smith, an exceptional all round cricketer in AB de Villiers and perhaps the greatest cricketer of our times – Jacques Kallis.
So far, India doesn’t stack up to poorly against them. Forget form, but Virender Sehwag is still one of cricket’s great match winners. Virat Kohli is going to be a stalwart of his times too, and I say that not on current record, or for those shots he plays so well, but for the way he thinks about the game and Vivianesque pride in his batting. And while Mahendra Singh Dhoni might not have AB’s batting credentials, he is surely a more than useful all round cricketer. Then there’s Cheteshwar Pujara whose career so far has established that his pedigree is unquestionable.
And for as long as we have that ageless champion, Sachin Tendulkar in our ranks, why should we give anything away to Kallis’ gigantic stature.
And that leaves us with what no great team can do without – twin heavy artillery units that will do the demolition job, relentlessly, unfailingly, come rain or shine, on mud-pits, dust bowls and green tops alike. Just one wouldn’t do, for while one bowler could run through a side every now and then, pick up a bunch of wickets over a long career too, but he could never dominate sides consistently enough on his own to win series after series singlehandedly. Remember Richard Hadlee?
In Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, South Africa has two match winning bowlers who repeatedly run through sides and will surely finish as pacemen who will rank amongst the greatest in the history of the game. And then there’s Morne Morkel who is about just as good as any in world cricket today. And, what about India? Well, forget now, India has never really had an all time great bowler, fast or otherwise.
Yes, we’ve had Anil Kumble and Kapil Dev who have taken more than a thousand wickets between them. But wickets only mean that they have been marginally more penetrative, more consistent and relatively fitter than those who have shared the ball with them. These stats alone do not suggest domination or match-winning ability.
For that you would have to look at bowling averages and wickets taken per match (within the confines of a given era). Great bowlers of the modern era, those that have dominated sides consistently have an average that hovers around less than 25 (ie they concede less than 25 runs for every wicket taken) and their strike rate hovers around less than 55 (ie they take a wicket every 55 balls or sooner).
India’s greatest, Kapil Dev and Kumble have an average of around 29.6 and a strike rate of 63 or more. Current mainstays Harbhajan and Zaheer have an average of about 32 and a strike rate of 68.1 and 59.7 respectively. The current crop fares even worse.
To keep things in perspective, the world’s best demolition units, Lillee-Thompson, Marshall-Garner, Mcgrath-Lee have an average of around 23 and strike rates averaging out at about 50. And Dale Steyn, for the record strikes every 41 deliveries at 22.68 a piece while Vernon Philander is weighing in with an average of 16.81(admittedly over a mere 16 Tests) and picking a wicket every 35 balls.
By comparison, our new spearhead Ishant Sharma has an average of about 38 and an onerous strike rate of 68.6. Our great new hopes R Ashwin and Umesh Yadav have an average languishing at around 32 but Umesh has an encouraging strike rate of a wicket every 46 deliveries.
And there lies our hope of attaining true greatness as a cricketing nation.