January 8, 2011

The bridesmaid awaits her turn

In 2010, South Africa watched India enjoy the crown that could well have been theirs

Come in, No. 2, your time in the shadow of Australia is up. At least, that's the way South Africa would have preferred their year to pan out. Instead they spent 12 months marking time in wet cement.

The Proteas were, as always, competitive in 2010, earning three of their Test victories by an innings and the other two by margins that were almost as convincing. However, a lack of ruthlessness afflicted them in all four of their drawn Tests. The malady may well persist until they find a permanent replacement for yeoman fast bowler Makhaya Ntini, whose retirement from the international arena he graced for 12 years will be a Twenty20 match against India staged in a football stadium and followed by a Bollywood concert.

But while one icon saddles up for the sunset, another has the full right to bask in the glare of his achievements. Not that the impressively grounded Hashim Amla would ever do something so brash. Rare are those who are as comfortable walking among us as they are rising above us. More unusual still are those who remain true to themselves in the throes of all that.Having staked a serious claim to be regarded as the finest current Test No. 3, Amla ended the year as the world's top-ranked batsman in the one-day format he was once deemed unsuited for.

South Africa were again formidable in one-day internationals, winning 12 of the 16 matches they played in 2010. But two of their losses cost them a rubber in India, and we should not forget that the year did not feature an ICC 50-overs tournament. Instead the Proteas suffered their all too familiar flop at the World Twenty20 in the West Indies, where they crashed out in the Super Eights.

On the Test front they started the year by fighting back to draw a home series against England. They also shared the spoils in India, and followed that with a 2-0 win in the Caribbean. Then came another stalemate, against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates.

All the while India made themselves comfortable on the throne Australia had finally been prised from and South Africa had coveted for so long. So when the Indians arrived to play their first Test series in South Africa since 2006-07 - and their first not staged on the slow pitches of the Asian subcontinent or in New Zealand in 23 months - anticipation was high in the country that the world would be shown who the top Test team really were. But the series refused to follow the convention of Indian batsmen struggling in South African conditions against bristling fast bowlers, whose Indian counterparts weren't equipped to make the most of those conditions.

It was partly true on day one of the first Test, when India were put in to bat on a damp Centurion surface and crashed to 116 for 9 on their way to losing by an innings.It was debatable whether South Africa would have dwindled to that extent had they been inserted, seeing as India were without Zaheer Khan, who was ruled out with a groin strain. The match will be forever remembered for the monumental milestones of Sachin Tendulkar's 50th Test century and Jacques Kallis' maiden Test double-century.

In the second Test, the recovered Zaheer was unleashed on a fast and furious Kingsmead surface and Sreesanth continued to ruffle the mental feathers of most who faced him - almost palpably in the case of Graeme Smith - as India proved they could give as good as they got. The deciding factor was VVS Laxman's steel-willed 96 in the second innings, the highest score of a match India won by 87 runs to level the series heading into the decider at Newlands.

It was only right that the showdown between the game's two top-ranked teams should be concluded on a pitch that, finally, promised a fair contest between bat and ball. When the covers were removed on the first morning a bona fide greentop was duly revealed. But centuries by Kallis and Tendulkar, 161 and 146 respectively, ensured that things stayed tidy in both first innings. Kallis then made an unbeaten 109 to become the first South African to score centuries in both innings of a Test match twice.

The match was set up for an exciting fifth day. India needed 340 to win with all 10 wickets standing on a pitch that offered turn and bounce. But South Africa's attack failed to be the threat they needed to be, and a tame draw ensued.

With that, India earned their first drawn series in South Africa in five attempts, and the begrudging respect of the locals, who had been telling the world before-hand how they were going to knock the Indians' heads off.

The series in the Caribbean earlier in the year passed virtually unnoticed in South Africa thanks to the country hosting a coinciding event that was always going to rule uber alles, the 2010 football World Cup. The only way cricket was going to muscle into the headlines during the month of June was if the Windies woke up from their recurring nightmare and beat the Proteas. They remained unsoundly asleep.

The two Tests against Pakistan were played on pitches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi that would have survived a nuclear holocaust in mint condition. They were duly drawn. That said, more creative bowlers might have been able to find a way through Pakistan's unusually resolute batting line-up.

So expectations leapt when it was revealed, on New Year's Day, that Imran Tahir's application for South African citizenship had been successful.

That made the Pakistani-born legspinner, the top wicket-taker in the SuperSport Series this season and a perennial performer in domestic cricket, immediately eligible for the Proteas. The news came too late for Tahir to be included in the squad for the third Test, but chances are good that he will feature in the one-day series against India.

It could be that 2010 will be the last year for some time that South Africa will have to make do without a spinner who looks to take wickets, rather than simply to plug an end. Tahir's small step forward might just prove to be the great leap South Africa need to take towards a balanced attack.

New kid on the block
He's not new, and at 31 he's certainly no kid. But Tahir looks for all money like the spark required to ignite the fire that has quietly smouldered within South Africa since their return to the international scene in 1991. Besides, it's about time the country that has been providing players for other national teams for years should do some duty-free shopping of its own.

Fading star
It's difficult to imagine anyone besides Mark Boucher crouching behind the stumps when South Africa are in the field. But he has been the first-choice stumper since 1998, and his 34-year-old knees must be swearing at him. Trouble is, the closest South Africa have come to producing a replacement for Boucher in the past 12 years is AB de Villiers.

High point
The lack of a double-century in Kallis' otherwise dazzling array of batting achievements puzzled a nation for the best part of 15 years. So when he finally solved the riddle with an unbeaten 201 in the first Test against India, South Africans were relieved that they would no longer have to explain the oddly deficient appetite of their most run-hungry son to the world.

Low point
Losing a Test match is no one's idea of fun. Doing so in bespoke bowling conditions doesn't make you feel any better, particularly when you are playing a team whose batsmen are said to faint at the merest hint of green in the pitch. But for your dressing room to spread rumours about the drinking habits of umpires is just tacky. Shame on you.

What 2011 holds
The World Cup looms extremely loud and incredibly close for South Africa. Nothing matters nearly as much for the Proteas in 2011 as success in the tournament, not even the tour by Australia in September and October. And after three unsuccessful trips to the semi-finals, success for South Africa at the World Cup means nothing less than winning it.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa