While the victors lifted the Ashes urn at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Joe Root was lying in a pitch-black away dressing room, wrestling with gastroenteritis and, though probably a lesser concern at the time, the unyielding cruelty of leading England in Australia. The Yorkshireman’s situation was gloomy in many regards but, for some observers of the series, the lights had also gone out on Test cricket itself.
“After this dull, attritional series why would anyone but the most committed fan want to watch Test cricket?” asked the despairing headline on a piece by ex-Wisden editor Scyld Berry in the Daily Telegraph.
This may not have been, like its Ashes counterpart in 2015, the most scintillating couple of months of cricket, but it was far from Tests’ nadir. When Berry himself penned his superb Cricket Wallah travelogue on England’s tour of India in 1981-82, the cricket he watched was unrelentingly turgid. Series between any great rivals do not always produce great cricket, either. India’s first ever visit to Pakistan in 1954-55 was marked by four Test matches so grinding they should have been oiled. Admittedly, of course, these games didn’t have to compete for the public’s money and attention with zing bails and KFC buckets.
In this most recent Ashes series there were undoubtedly dull periods. England were not blown away by a moustache like four years ago. For the tourists this series was more like tinnitus, a relentless nagging that eventually — on the fifth day of all the result Tests — saw them succumb.
If people want narratives, however, there were still plenty knocking about: the culmination of Pat Cummins’ half-decade battle back to brilliance, the final steps perceptible on his tours of India and Bangladesh last year; the spectacular implosion of Moeen Ali, the man so often England’s emergency Lion reduced to the status of Lyon’s rabbit; the sheer bafflement of Steve Smith combining poise with perpetual motion; the Marsh brothers becoming the most feared siblings in England since The Krays; Dawid Malan’s frank efforts with his bat and, in media interviews, his brain, both of which might be relevant on the off chance Root concludes leadership is not for him.
Nonetheless for those who sighed at another uncompetitive Ashes, the stage Australia took to as Root lay snoozing like a queasy Snoopy was indicative of all that was wrong with the series. To justified amazement, a podium was produced featuring two giant hands indicating, playground-style, the final series score of 4-0. It was another bit of manufactured nonsense to go with the headbutts and heavy heads furores. Later in the day it was revealed officials from both Cricket Australia (CA) and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) had already met to discuss how to make future series more combative — a sort of reverse peace talks — which suggests Berry’s point is being taken seriously in some quarters.
So it was against this rather mixed backdrop for Tests that India rocked up in Cape Town for the first match of three against South Africa. By the time the game had finished, the answer to the Daily Telegraph’s doom-laden question of why anyone would still watch Test cricket would undoubtedly have been, “Because it is amazing.”
This wasn’t so much a cricket match as a game of horseless jousting, as the two sides crashed into each other non-stop. India’s spearheads of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami feasted on the lightning pitch, connoisseurs of swing and seam savouring the taste of foreign vegetation. AB de Villiers counter-attacked both India and critics of his commitment. Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander plundered. Pandya lit a fire under the match and perceptions of him. South Africa collapsed. India were fatally punctured. The home side won by 72 runs, but the result was almost secondary to the giddy breathlessness of the Test, one which hopefully heralds yet another intoxicating series involving South Africa.
For a man who can appear wryly dour at times, Faf du Plessis nevertheless leads a side that, through their on-field performances or off-field intrigue, have possibly been the most exciting in the world in the last two years. We will have to delicately tiptoe over the rather humdrum home wins versus Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka last year, but stretching back to the end of 2015 South Africa’s series away in England, New Zealand and Australia and at home to the Three Lions have all produced decent cricket and incidents. From tense Hamilton raindrops to Hobart lollipops to Bavuma’s field patrols, they have been the best side to watch if you prefer your Test cricket smeared in salsa.
It obviously helps that South Africa have some of the most dynamic players on earth at present. In July, Kagiso Rabada was paternalistically banned for a send-off to Ben Stokes during the Proteas series in England. Six months later, he sits on top of the world and Stokes sits in an agonising judicial limbo.
The initial signs of Rabada’s ascent actually were first really noticeable during the ODI series in India in 2015 when the quick confirmed his 6-16 against Bangladesh earlier in the year wasn’t just a flash in the pan. He gave India the sort of hurry up in an ODI series that Stephen Finn once managed.
Sadly that is where the England bowler and Rabada’s career’s diverge and the frightening thing for both India’s batsmen in this series and the world’s batsmen for the next 10 years is not just his pace but his burgeoning persona. When Maharaj nearly lost his crown jewels spilling a catch off him at Newlands, Rabada shouted something unpleasant in his direction. While this is never a particularly edifying sight in itself, it is hard to imagine the almost coy 2015 Rabada serving up such a verbal volley in that white-ball series a few years ago. He is now locked in beast mode with, for friend or foe, the claws to match. He is only 22.
With Steyn, Morkel and Philander in the same changing room, it would be a remarkable achievement to simply be the best bowler in South Africa let alone the world. India’s batsmen, coming into the series full of hope, were therefore met by possibly the greatest pace quartet since Jamaica’s 2012 4x100m Olympic relay team. Even this was itself something of an affront to the Ashes.
Australia, after years of injuries and ill-fate, finally managed to put out Cummins, Starc and Hazlewood together for a whole series, a trio which only ever looked like being thwarted by soil rather than their opponents. South Africa literally went one better with their four-man speedster attack, the raw joy of seeing Steyn back on the field matched only by the intense disappointment of an injury now potentially ruling him out of the entire series.
Even Australians will secretly hope he returns in time for the Baggy Greens’ visit in March, a Test series where it will be interesting if Smith and his fellow batsmen — Warner in particular — adopt the same sort of grind-it-out lowish run rate circumspection they did against England. They might instead decide to make hay while the ball shines on the basis of it being be a battle of quicks rather than wits.
India were ultimately undone by the genius of Philander, whose second innings LBW set-up of Kohli put him ahead of even Spiderman when it comes to unleashing entrapment from the palm of his hand. While his medium-fast diamonds were an ironic nudge in the ribs of England currently obsessing about raw pace, Philander’s still fine but more modest figures in Australia at least paint the away Ashes efforts of fellow new-ball maestro James Anderson in a favourable light.
The tourists too have their own superhero, albeit still emerging. Kohli and Anushka’s wedding may have got the headlines recently, but India’s true king of social media these days is Hardik Pandya. His Instagram account is a selection of fashion shoots, razor sharp suits, oiled torsos and coy photos in hotel rooms that suggest it’s not all hard work on tour. Pandya’s peroxide hair and six-pack might define him online, but on the cricket field it is his eye that is truly extraordinary. Even so, there was a certain feeling amongst some, not without justification, that he would struggle or indeed be humiliated away from the white ball and brown pitches.
Early on in his first innings knock of 93 he might as well have put a saddle on his luck, so frequently did he ride it, particularly against Steyn. But then Pandya settled and amid the snazzy slashes and upper cuts came moments of sober class. The lofted drive, the clip through midwicket, the sanguine stroke through the covers. Rabada’s barrage then interrupted his charge, leaving him backing away uncomfortably like Stuart Broad at times, and then nailed him caught behind seven short of his ton. As the series progresses the young all-rounder will now have his helmet as well as the edge of his bat targeted relentlessly. With ball in hand he will certainly give it back, though hopefully with rationed purpose rather than ego.
The one major criticism of India in Cape Town was that in their second innings they just meekly subsided without launching one last counter-attack in a match full of them. It would surely have been apt send in Pandya ahead of Saha, a very able batsman but poor starter, to try and launch his second assault on momentum of the Test. The match was gone when he again walked out, to soon return, at seven. People ask where Pandya should come in to bat. Perhaps it shouldn’t be defined before the innings starts. India shuffled Ashwin’s position. With South Africa already blitzing them, they probably should have done the same with Pandya’s.
Although Kohli failed as in individual, this match was in some respects a triumph for his individualism. He allegedly sought to oust Anil Kumble as coach to impose his own more aggressive style on the side, and his team — Pandya facing Rabada apart — certainly looked in no mood to take a backward step. India have gone from Dhoni’s processors to Kohli’s provocateurs. That of course does not guarantee results, and as the series progresses, Kumble’s rather less bombastic style might be missed, particularly if India’s batsmen fail to settle to any degree. Kohli’s literally in-your-face captaincy sits uncomfortably with many, but here it was perfectly at home in this hectic typhoon of a game. Newlands was an in-your-face fistful of Test cricket. A little reminder of why people would watch it.