This week, 11,000 kms apart, there are two important Test matches being played; one at the historic SCG and the other at the picturesque Newlands in Cape Town. Neither of them, however, is being played for the Ashes urn or for the Freedom Trophy; they are being played for pride!
While the Australians — who have already regained the Ashes — would like to maintain their winning momentum, and with it their self-esteem, England would love to fly back home with a bit of its pride salvaged.
The resurgent Englishmen showed what they are capable of in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. If rain hadn’t intervened, England would perhaps have had its tail up before heading to SCG for the final Test. What’s more, England’s supporters - and the ‘Barmy Army’ – would have had something to cheer about after a dismal summer Down Under.
Far away, in Cape Town, a confident Indian team will look to rewrite the history books. The South Africans, on the other hand, mesmerised by the Indian spinners into submission when they were touring the sub-continent, will look for revenge. Quick, bouncy tracks and a four-pronged pace attack will therefore be the Indians’ lot. Both teams will, again, play for pride.
Many of India’s former stars, including coach, Ravi Shastri, have said that this would be India’s best chance of winning a series in South Africa. Faf du Plessis, the Proteas’ skipper has reacted by stating that notwithstanding what the Indians are thinking, the Proteas are looking to settle a score.
Broadcasters of the Freedom Trophy Tests in South Africa too have hyped up the series as ‘Hisaab 25 saal ka’, clearly aimed at increasing eye-balls. The Indians have never won a Test series against the Proteas in their backyard. Indian cricket followers — perhaps cockier than the players themselves — will therefore settle for nothing less than a series win.
In both the Test matches, at the SCG and at Newlands, it will be interesting to see who blinks first. England and India are both playing away from home and are clearly the underdogs. As Archie Griffin, American footballer, once said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it is the size of the fight in the dog that matters.”
Can the ‘fight’ in the Indian and England teams therefore be bigger than that of their opponents? That will surely be the one factor that distinguishes the victors from the vanquished.
In this Ashes series, England has been knocked out thrice, in three consecutive Test matches. Though groggy, its players have shown character in getting up and fighting it out in the fourth Test. Will India show the same sort of character while facing the South African quicks, on bouncy tracks?
India, South Africa and England, in that order, are the top rankers in the ICC Test match team ratings for 2017. The Australians are at number five, with the New Zealanders a slot above them. Potentially, these ratings could change dramatically by the end of January 2018, consequent to Australia’s emphatic win in the Ashes series.
The Indians, especially their top order batsmen, will have to perform outstandingly well if they have to beat the Proteas and stay at the top of the heap. Daryll Cullinan, former South African batsman believes that the South African pace battery is good enough to trouble the formidable Indian batting line up. He feels that the Indian pace attack shouldn’t be a major problem for the home batsmen but that they will surely need to keep an eye on how Ravichandran Ashwin uses the local tracks.
India, South Africa, England and Australia are virtually in a play-off for Test match rankings. A home and away record among themselves, in recent times, could shed light upon which the best all-round team is.
India has beaten South Africa, England and Australia in home series but has lost to each of them in away series. The Proteas, at home, have only beaten India but have defeated the Australians Down Under, having lost to the Englishmen, both at home and away.
The Australians, besides their recent Ashes win, have beaten India at home. They lost the last Ashes series played in England and also lost to India, in India. England has not only won all its home series but has also beaten the Proteas in their homeland.
India, South Africa and Australia have all played six Test series, each of them winning three and losing three. However, the latter two have lost a series at home and have won an away series. England, on the other hand is the only team that has won four series i.e. three at home and one in South Africa.
England, therefore, hasn’t done too badly, over all. But then, for English — and Australian — fans, an Ashes series win counts for more than anything else; even, perhaps, the cricket World Cup!
Steven Smith has literally won the Ashes series for Australia on his own. Alistair Cook’s form at the top, Stuart Broad’s bowling and Joe Root’s failure to convert good starts into big hundreds, in the first three Tests, has hurt the tourists badly. Root’s ‘soft’ captaincy too was severely criticised by former Australian skipper, Ricky Ponting.
Under no circumstances will Kohli be a ‘soft’ skipper. He will lead by example and perhaps bat India to Test wins, just like Smith did. The question is how many others in the Indian team will put their hands up, and have the guts and the grit to stand up to the chin music, day in and day out? Isn’t that what pride is about?
England’s enfant terrible, the South African born stalwart, Kevin Pietersen tweeted during the fourth Test at MCG, saying: “Never quite understood the ‘playing for pride’ when a series is lost. More like playing for your place in the team because you’ve lost. There is ZERO pride in winning after you’ve lost!”
Pietersen was taking a dig at Cook’s epic innings of 244, which perhaps came a Test match too late. Broad’s fifer at MCG also came after the horse had bolted. Many critics of the present England team therefore believed that Cook, Broad and a few others had to go so that England’s rebuilding process could start.
Test matches, believe it or not, can be won on individual excellence. But series are won when the entire team plays for pride. England’s show of pride may have come a bit late; it is only hoped that the entire Indian team pulls its weight in the Test match at Newlands, for a setback here could cost India the series.
Both the Tests — at SCG and at Newlands — are about pride; one at the end of a series, the other at the beginning. Indian fans will only hope that Kohli and company, having put in their best, will hold their heads high at the end of the three Test series.
Jim Courier, the brilliant American tennis player once said, “A champion is one who carries himself with pride — win or lose. You can never tell if he has won or lost when he is leaving the court.”
The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. A former fast bowler, he is also a coach and a mental toughness trainer.