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This isn’t exactly Australia in the early 2000s when their almighty Test team labelled the tough terrain of India as the ‘final frontier’ having eviscerated all opponents worldwide.
Quick history lesson before we get into India’s bid for history. Steve Waugh’s men rode a record 15-Test streak into the 2001 tour of India after an unbeaten home summer in all formats against meek opponents West Indies and Zimbabwe.
Australia, who hadn’t won a series in India for over three decades, thrashed the hosts in the first Test and a similar result was transpiring in the next match. That was before one of the great partnerships between VVS Laxman – in an innings rated the second best by cricket bible Wisden – and Rahul Dravid fuelled one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Test history as India somehow won a a series for the ages.
Three years later, Australia – with their core intact although the Waugh twins had retired – finally achieved their final piece of the puzzle with a 2-1 victory over India to conquer the entirety of the Test landscape.
Right now, it’s No.1 ranked Test team India who have been branded with Waugh’s famous lexicon as they seek a first ever Test triumph in South Africa – a site which has traditionally proved difficult due to extra pace and bounce.
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“We have worked really hard to win series away from India,” said vice captain KL Rahul ahead of the first Test starting in Centurion on December 26. “We’ve won series in England and Australia, which gives us a lot of confidence. We haven’t won a series in South Africa, which gives us extra motivation to do our best.”
India has had the odd success but been unable to do it long enough against the perennially tough South Africa. But times have changed and the always competitive South Africa, perhaps the most consistent Test team of the last three decades, are in a slump having lost five of their last eight home Tests. The instability has reared off-field amid a racism saga threatening to cause upheaval for South Africa’s cricket governing body.
Usually blessed with a reservoir of talent, the Proteas are without indefatigable stars who have been the fulcrum of the team for so long – AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla. Their batting – normally so rock solid and tough to crack – thus looks fragile and now reliant on new skipper Dean Elgar, who is a throwback to the hard-bitten South African batter of yesteryear.
They do have Aiden Markram and ‘keeper-batter Quinton de Kock, who add some much-needed dynamism but India’s talent-laden bowling attack led by talisman Jasprit Bumrah will fancy their chances.
Their vaunted attack is also shorthanded without speedster Anrich Nortje but star Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Duanne Olivier should pose India’s batters – who traditionally have struggled in South Africa – plenty of questions.
Without being too simplistic, it feels like this potentially momentous series will hinge on India captain Virat Kohli, who is under huge pressure after being unceremoniously dumped as skipper of the ODI team and the master batter has endured a strange two-year drought without an international century.
The ever combative Kohli will no doubt be steeling himself for a return to his brilliant best in a bid to spearhead another legacy shaping triumph for India. He does have support through an experienced batting order and the mercurial talent of Rishabh Pant, who will make his Tets debut in South Africa.
India’s well-rounded team, which has seen them enjoy landmark triumphs in Australia and England in recent years, has them well poised to finally end their curse in South Africa and they deservedly start as favorites for the three-match series played behind closed doors. It also heralds a new era with Dravid having replaced high-profile Ravi Shastri as head coach.
But until they are knocked off, South Africa still has history on their side and have reminded India of their jinx in a battle of the mind games. “India are number one in the world for a reason but the fact that we are playing in our own back yard gives us an advantage,” Elgar said.
India aren’t as unstoppable as that great Australia team were in the early 2000s and can never quite truly lay claim to dominate the entire landscape given they sadly don’t play Pakistan in Tests due to political reasons.
Still, final frontier or not, Kohli’s men know a series victory will further cement their standing as India’s greatest Test side of all-time.
If that ensues then surely Kohli will be sporting a wide grin which has become increasingly rare during this period of tumult.