Whilst England are toiling away in Australia, there are another two major nations doing battle in the Southern hemisphere. South Africa and India, the number one and two ranked test sides in the world respectively, have exchanged their opening blows today.
The ODI series that preceded it did not end well for the Indians, as South Africa put them to the sword. In the three matches South Africa were victorious by 141 and 134 runs in the first two matches, and in the third, India were saved a further beating by not being required to chase 301 due to rain.
The theme for the series? India were hammered, and it’s become recurring - certainly in tests over the past couple of years - India, when not in India, lose. Indeed, the Indians haven’t won a test away from home since the summer of 2011, when they beat the West Indies in Kingston.
Since that victory, they finished their tour of the Caribbean with two draws, and lost their next eight tests outside of India with back-to-back whitewashes in England and Australia. The expectation of many for the upcoming two test series in South Africa is the same. And they visit England, with Trent Bridge the first port of call, in the Summer of 2014.
But what can we expect from them? It’s very difficult to judge. To start with, India’s status as second in the world rankings is to be taken with a pinch of salt. They have played six test matches this year, and all have been at home - the first four were against a then-in-crisis Australia in the spring, then there was the two-test Sachin Tendulkar farewell procession against the Windies.
India though, it has to be said, are a good side, particularly in India. At home, their plethora of good spin bowlers make the most of the slow, turning pitches, and Indian batting quality has seldom been an issue.
Zaheer Khan in full flow for India
In England next year, the onus will be on the bowlers, particularly the seamers. Spinners are of use in England, of course, but not to anywhere near the same level as in the dust bowls of India. Which means India’s fast bowlers must come to the fore if they are to have any chance of claiming a series victory. This is where India’s weakness lies, and why they have struggled on tour in recent years.
India have had one consistently very good seamer in recent years: Zaheer Khan. The 35-year-old former Cricketer of the Year has been recalled to the test squad to face South Africa, after a year out with a loss of form and yet another injury. On his day, a fit and firing Zaheer Khan is one of the best bowlers around, and he’s been one of the few world-class Indian quicks in recent (and possibly all-time) history. He will bring a wealth of experience with him into this squad, to help nurture India’s newer breed of pace-bowlers.
The pick of which looks like it could be Mohammed Shami, a recent newcomer into the test set up. India has never exactly been a hotbed for fast bowling talent, but Shami appears really encouraging. Fast tracked into the international arena, the 23-year-old took impressive match figures of 9/118 on test debut in November against the West Indies.
Shami also played in the aforementioned ill-fated ODI series against the Springboks, and despite finding it tougher to keep the runs down against superior opposition, Shami has still displayed signs of his promise. He has continued to take wickets, and has dislodged the brick wall that is Hashim Amla on each of the three times he has faced him. It’s an auspicious start, and Shami and India need more following in his footsteps.
India are undergoing something of a transitional period, with many new players coming into the side, replacing the seasoned campaigners such as Virender Sehwag and Harbahjan Singh who have been dropped and Sachin Tendulkar who has retired. It will certainly be a very different Indian side that arrives in England to the one we saw in 2011. The upcoming matches in South Africa will be the acid test for the new look India test outfit, and will give a decent indication of what we can expect to see at Trent Bridge on July 9th 2014.