South Africa in India 2009-10 February 5, 2010

An understated rivalry

An intriguing contest has built up between India and South Africa, with the intensity found on the field of play rather than in the stands

With so few teams in the fray at the highest level, cricket suffers in comparison to other sports when it comes to rivalries. The Ashes, with more than a century of history and tradition, has retained its hallowed status, while other head-to-head contests have ebbed and flowed with the passage of time. For four decades, from the time that Sir Frank Worrell's side captivated Australia in 1960-61, the tussle for the trophy that came to bear his name was often memorable and fiercely fought. Then, the West Indies went into decline, and the lustre was lost.

There was never a shortage of spice when India or Pakistan played England, with those of subcontinental origin spectacularly failing the Tebbitt Test at venues like Headingley and The Oval. There was more than a bit of the coloniser-versus-colonised about those contests, and Indian and Pakistani victories (1986 and 1992, in particular) saw some chips drop off a few shoulders.

The unlikeliest rivalry to take shape in recent times though has been that between India and Australia. Long before Monkeygate, Sydney, Steve Bucknor and alleged planes on the tarmac, there had been some needle. Australia's golden generation of the 1970s never toured India, and the complaints of their predecessors about the hardships of touring are still raised each time there's a flashpoint.

At some point in the 1990s, around the time that the West Indies started to fade, India started figuring out how to play Australia. And while others continued to be swept away by the baggy-green tide, the Indians stood their ground. Apart from one disastrous tour in 1999-2000, ruined by appalling selection as much as anything else, India have fought Australia to a standstill on more than one occasion.

There are intriguing facets to these Indo-Australian jousts. One country has produced the finest cricketers and teams, from the days of Spofforth, through Trumper, Armstrong, Bradman and the Chappells, to Ponting. The other has the world's largest captive audience for the game. India's fascination with Twenty20 cricket and the lack of passion for the longer version of the game is often overstated. There were capacity crowds for the Ranji Trophy final in Mysore, which suggests that the board needs to think again about where it schedules games in future.

But what of India and South Africa? In the early days, there were no cricketing ties, with India playing a prominent role in the justified isolation of apartheid South Africa. After Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison in Paarl in February 1990, it was the Indian board that helped accelerate South African cricket's return to the international fold. Without the BCCI championing the United Cricket Board's cause, it's unlikely that Kepler Wessels' side would have played, and made such an impact, at the World Cup in 1992.

The bilateral series that followed was characterised by some bland safety-first cricket, and decided by the pace and fury of Allan Donald at Port Elizabeth. Wessels' bat made contact with Kapil Dev's shin after the controversial "Mankaded" dismissal of Peter Kirsten, but even that incident created nothing like the sort of animosity seen after Sydney.

India seldom did themselves justice in the southern cape, and it took a long time for the South African public to think of them as a half-decent side. Even when individuals dazzled, as Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin did in Cape Town (1996), the collective showing was dismal. That, of course, was the tour in which India made 100 and 66 in Durban.

Even on Indian soil, the South Africans found ways to be competitive. But for a splendid spell from Javagal Srinath at Motera in the first Test of the '96-'97 series, Cronje's side might have walked away with series honours. Gary Kirsten's resolute batting had set the stage for a mammoth win at the Eden Gardens and the visitors had shown that even without a great spinner in the ranks, their pace bowlers had the nous to adjust and even thrive on slow-and-low pitches.

By their next tour, with Donald once again rampant, the pace men had perfected their subcontinent strategy. Having prevailed in a tense contest at the Wankhede in Mumbai - a pitch that was given the wire-brush treatment, no less - they were far too good for India in Bangalore. It should have gone down in the annals as one of South Africa's greatest triumphs - no team had won in India since Pakistan edged a series by 16 runs in 1987 - but instead it was obscured by the match-fixing scandal that claimed prominent victims on both sides of the divide.

The Mike Denness affair cast a pall over India's subsequent tour of South Africa, though once again the hosts were far too good out on the field. It was only three years ago, on a Wanderers pitch that Mickey Arthur had reckoned would be tailor-made for his quicks, that India's cricketers finally went some distance towards solving the puzzle. Sreesanth's pelvic thrusts with bat-in-hand might be the memorable image from that game, but it was his outswing bowling that saw South Africa routed for just 84 in the first innings. It was a series that hung in the balance right up to the final session, when Jacques Kallis' composure and poise saw the home side home in the shadow of Table Mountain.

Zaheer Khan's tussles with Graeme Smith formed a fascinating sub-text to that series, and Smith's revival in the final three innings played a huge part in his team's come-from-behind victory. The return series in India was shared, with both sides winning convincingly in contrasting conditions. South Africa bowled India out for 76 on a well-grassed pitch in Ahmedabad, and were then at the receiving end of a spin ambush in Kanpur. But while the matches were hard-fought and the South Africans were none too happy with the Green Park surface, there was an absence of the malice that had taken the sheen off India's series in Australia.

Even three years ago, neither of these sides would have imagined that they would leave Australia in the shade, at least as far as the rankings are concerned. South Africa came back from hopeless positions at both Perth and Melbourne to win the series, but then discovered that climbing to the top was a lot easier than staying there. Australia continued with their tradition of handing out beatings to South Africa in the Cape, and the ordinary run continued against England later in the year.

India, in contrast, have built on the confidence engendered by a comprehensive home series win against the Australians. England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have been defeated since, and the manner in which they fought back to draw games at Napier and Ahmedabad was indicative of the belief that courses through the ranks. Already without Rahul Dravid, they might be deprived of VVS Laxman's services as well, but those that take their places are unlikely to freeze in the face of a pace barrage.

South Africa will be tested by Indian spin, but keeping the camp harmonious will be as much of a challenge. Makhaya Ntini, the team's lone black icon, is fading, and it'll be intriguing to see if politics plays much of a part in team selection over the next fortnight. Transformation certainly has provided benefits, with Hashim Amla, blooded on the tour here in 2004, now established as an integral part of the top order.

These two teams spent more than a decade in Australia's shadow, and it'll be fascinating to see which of them is best equipped to try and cling to the top branches. Both have a battle-hardened core, and youngsters with huge potential. What neither has yet discovered is the ruthlessness that was the hallmark of the great West Indian and Australian sides. Natural allies less than two decades ago, and still great friends at board level, the players must now focus on a new rivalry. For decades now, the sight of the green Pakistani or Australian cap was enough to fire up those in India blue. Now the endeavour will be to be similarly aroused by a different shade of green.

In recent times, clashes with Australia and Pakistan have been marred by distressing levels of jingoism. That's unlikely to be the case here, with the intensity found on the field of play rather than in the stands. Given that the alternate appears to be monkey noises or chants of "Pakistan hai hai", it's perhaps better that way.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo