February 12, 2010

Kallis as anaesthetic, Steyn as scalpel

South Africa rise from the dead, thanks to a spook

Steyn: unreasonably athletic for a ghost © AFP

There was little in the scorecard from the first Test in Nagpur to suggest that this was a titanic shootout between the universe’s two highest-ranked nations. South Africa followed up their ceremonial spanking of England in the final Test in Johannesburg by ritually clouting an injury-hit-but-still-woeful India, one of the more impressive back-to-back doubles of recent years. As best-of-the-best showdowns go, this was roughly the equivalent of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali squaring up in the ring in Manila, the bell ringing for the start of Round 1, Ali tripping over his shoelaces and Frazier knocking him out with a frying pan to the back of the head.

To be fair to India, they did dominate the match for the first 39 balls. For the remaining 2063, however, they were surgically dismantled, as Graeme Smith’s team donned their hospital scrubs, used Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla as an anaesthetic, then Dale Steyn as a scalpel, and performed a full cricketectomy on the home team.

In their past six Tests, South Africa have now beaten Australia, England and India by an innings, without yet winning any of those series. A one-run Indian victory in Kolkata would be the perfect conclusion to that run of results.

The South Africans are back to their dominant form of 2008. They evidently had a powerful allergic reaction to the year 2009 – six Tests, one meaningless win (in the dead third game against Australia), four heavy losses and a draw-that-should-have-been-a-win. Even the best teams and players experience fluctuations in form – after all, Henry VIII did not behead all of his wives, but is still regarded by historians as one of the greatest wife-beheaders of all time – but South Africa had just triumphed in Australia and won 18 and lost just four of their previous 25 Tests, so last year was clearly a major blip.

Quite why 2009 prompted such a slump is not clear – perhaps it was the distraction of it being designated International Year Of Natural Fibres by the UN General Assembly; or maybe the Icelandic financial collapse last January sparked concerns about the well-being of the global economy that, as concerned citizens of the world, Smith and his men could not help but carry onto the field with them (and if ever a dismissal screamed a frantic worry that current levels of national debt are irresponsibly unsustainable, it was Kallis playing no stroke to a straight one from Stuart Broad in Durban); it is even possible that the team was so devastated by the sad passing of American jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard late in December 2008 that they played the entirety of 2009 under a pall of gloom about the unavoidability of death, haunted by thoughts of their own mortality.

The instrument of devastation in these last two triumphs has been Steyn, currently the world’s best bowler by an almost embarrassing margin. He has taken 17 for 223 in those two victories, striking every 22 balls on pitches on which his team’s batsmen have lost their wickets once every 22 overs, whilst racking up 981 for 13. In Nagpur, he became the first pace bowler to take 10 wickets in a Test in India since Javagal Srinath in 1998-99, and the first visiting paceman to do so since Richard Hadlee 10 years before that. If India is a fast bowlers’ graveyard, then Steyn is a disturbingly spooky ghost.

In an era generally devoid of great pace bowling, Steyn stands in splendid statistical solitude (and I have to hand the numbers to prove it, but, to paraphrase the words of Diana Ross and The Supremes, “You can’t hurry Dale Steyn statistics, you’ll just have to wait [until the weekend].”)

From an English perspective, we can only praise and thank him for having the decency to be injured at the start of the recent series. After everything England has given to the world – Shakespeare, for example, and cricket – how broad-minded it was of the Phalaborwa Phirecracker to allow England an honourable draw.

India can take little of use from the match, other than fine but ultimately worthless hundreds by two of their three remaining uninjured first-choice top six. Tendulkar’s second-innings effort was further evidence that his breakthrough maiden Test century at Old Trafford in 1990 was not a flash in the pan. With 45 further three-figure scores in his Test log-book since then, that argument is close to being put to bed.

Sehwag’s first-innings century was his slowest since March 2005. Perhaps weighed down by the responsibility of recuperating his team from 56 for 3, the Delhi Demolisher dawdled to 100 off a Boycottian, Kirstenic, Shastricious, Mujtabaesque, positively Tavarescent 134 balls.

This unfathomably tedious hundred, in which Sehwag blasted just 15 fours (only one measly boundary per nine balls faced), could not have happened at a worse time. In my podcast last week, I idly speculated that this series would prove once and for all who is the more entertaining batsman – Sehwag or Ashwell Prince.

In the feedback comments, most, if not all, seemed to side with the former, duped perhaps by his slightly superior Test career strike-rate of 80 compared with Prince’s 44, or the fact that he had hit 76 sixes and 906 fours compared to Prince’s 11 and 352 (ignoring the fact that Sehwag had faced around 800 more balls in his career than Prince, so the South African had plenty of time to make up his 619-boundary deficit), or the allegation that Sehwag has clattered three of the four fastest recorded double-centuries in Test history.

What poor timing, then, for the Indian Incinerator to boringly reach three figures without hitting even a single six. This was the first time he has reached his century without clearing the ropes since his 254 at Lahore in January 2006, although on that occasion he did compensate by having thwacked 20 fours in the 93 balls it took him to post his hundred. Prince, on the other hand, was out for 0. Straight in, straight out, no messing about. The debate remains very much alive.

(Regarding other feedback comments, I will post the next installment in my Highlights Of The Last Decade soon. Next week probably. Potentially as part of the next World Cricket podcast, or by the end of this decade. I promise. I’ve chosen them. I just haven’t finished writing them up).

Meanwhile, there are rumours that Australia and West Indies are in the throes of an international one-day series. My sources in Australia claim not to know anything about it, none of my cricket-following friends believes that it is happening, and there have been counter-rumours that the scorecards posted on sites such as Cricinfo are frauds.

Even Australian allrounder Shane Watson has expressed his doubts that the series is actually happening, despite having supposedly scored two half-centuries and picked up a couple of wickets in the alleged series so far.

“Aah, look,” said Watson yesterday, “a mate of mine sent me a text congratulating me on picking up the Man-of-the-Match award in Game 1. But I have absolutely no recollection of playing an international cricket match on February 7 as he claimed that I had. I did have a dream in which I felt that I was doing something totally pointless, but that’s as far as it went.”

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer