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India series is a chance for the Proteas to focus on ’cricket’ again

FILE - Aiden Markram with Dean Elgar of South Africa during the 2020 Betway Test Series match between against Sri Lanka. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

FILE - Aiden Markram with Dean Elgar of South Africa during the 2020 Betway Test Series match between against Sri Lanka. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Published Dec 19, 2021


Johannesburg - From giving a helping hand to South Africa in the country’s initial forays back into the international arena to historic firsts, uncompromising battles on the field, costly administrative disagreements and now another critical assist, India’s cricket relationship with South Africa has been complex.

‘The Friendship series’ really harks back to those early days, post South African cricket’s unity, when India, outspoken critics of the apartheid system, stepped to the fore to push for South Africa’s return to international cricket.

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The two countries shared strong relations in the 1990s and 2000s, with South Africa probably the first country to recognise India’s economic power in the sport. Those bonds were truly strengthened during India’s acrimonious tour in 2001, when the then United Cricket Board of South Africa, through chief executive Gerald Majola, backed India over the ICC during the ‘Mike Denness affair’.

Of course it made economic sense for South African cricket to do so, because in terms of its own broadcast deals, it had to ensure a third match of that series took place. The Indian team had threatened to leave the country after six players, including Sachin Tendulkar, were found guilty of ball tampering during the second Test in Gqeberha (then Port Elizabeth).

There was pressure from the South African government, too, so agreeing to block Denness from entering SuperSport Park, where the final Test was played, was the most pragmatic step for Majola and the UCB. It was a decision appreciated by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. That was even more so when the ICC revoked the match’s official status.

It was made to look like India and South Africa had stood together against the old world superpowers, Australia and England. Through the rest of that decade ties between India and South Africa’s cricket administrators grew strong, so much so that in 2009, when India desperately needed to host the IPL outside of its borders, the BCCI came knocking on CSA’s door.

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Of course the problems that subsequently ensued rocked CSA to its core. The effects, through the failure initially to implement the recommendations of a commission of inquiry, were still apparent even this year.

The fallout from the controversy which arose from hosting the IPL also impacted on the 2013 series here, with Haroon Lorgat, who’d replaced Majola as CEO, not someone who had good relations with the powers that be in the BCCI.

It’s the opposite these days, of course. Cricket SA’s current director of cricket, Graeme Smith, has a very close relationship with the BCCI president, Sourav Ganguly.

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It was those ties which helped to ensure that the bulk of the 2021/22 tour’s schedule could be played.

As a result, Virat Kohli gets a second bite at trying to become the first Indian captain to lead a side to a Test series win in South Africa. This tour is very much India’s ‘final frontier’.

Tendulkar, the current India head coach Rahul Dravid, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Kohli himself in 2018 have all led sides to South Africa, with Dhoni’s 2011 side’s draw the best result that India has managed.

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How much of a role that played in Kohli agreeing to this year’s tour despite the concerns about the Omicron variant isn’t known. But Kohli is very motivated by history and being able to put his name in a category featuring no other Indian captain is something that he’ll treasure.

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He has the armoury both with bat and ball to achieve that historic feat, although the absence of India’s leading run-scorer in Tests this year, Rohit Sharma, is a big blow. Kohli, while not in top form, will remain the big wicket for South Africa, but the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, KL Rahul and the explosive Rishabh Pant all provide threats, with the latter a proven match-winner.

With the ball India are more than capable of fighting fire with fire. Jasprit Bumrah, the two Mohammeds – Siraj and Shami – Umesh Jadav and Ishant Sharma can exploit all conditions, while Shardul Thakur is dangerous if underestimated. Ravichandaran Ashwin is the world’s best off-spinner.

The challenge is significant for Dean Elgar’s team, not least in that they need to get into the series quickly, having not played a Test in six months. Most of the players had an intense few weeks competing in limited overs matches, culminating in the T20 World Cup, while for the likes of Elgar, Keegan Petersen, Duanne Olivier and Ryan Rickelton there was game time in the Four-Day series.

It means training, which starts tomorrow, will have to be ramped up quickly, to get the players in the right frame both mentally and physically.

It is a crucial series for the hosts whose Test schedule has been severely compromised by the pandemic. South African cricket has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this year. The Proteas have an opportunity to put the spotlight back on matters on the field, through their skill and courage.

India are favourites, but history, while a strong source of motivation, is against them.


India: Virat Kohli (capt), Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant, Wriddhiman Saha, R Ashwin, Jayant Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj.

Standby players: Navdeep Saini, Saurabh Kumar, Deepak Chahar, Arzan Nagwaswalla.

South Africa: Dean Elgar (capt), Aiden Markram, Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen, Temba Bavuma, Wiaan Mulder, Quinton de Kock, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Duanne Olivier, Sarel Erwee, Beuran Hendricks, George Linde, Marco Jansen, Glenton Stuurman, Kyle Verreynne, Lungi Ngidi, Prenelan Subrayen, Sisanda Magala, Ryan Rickelton.


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