“The Sri Lankan debacle shows that South Africans have irrevocably joined the riff-raff of cricket, who travel abroad only to make up the numbers, to be used as a punching bag by the hosts”

The South African surrender in Sri Lanka was disheartening.

Not only was the result 0-2, a clean sweep in favour of the hosts, the manner of capitulation also left a lot to be desired.

The four times South Africa batted in the series, they failed to reach 300 even once, crossed 200 only on the final occasion that they batted, had three scores less than 130 including one abysmal innings amounting to 73.

Until Theunis de Bruyn rediscovered the merits of the ‘when in doubt sweep’ policy while dealing with spin, none of the famed batting line-ups seemed to have any clue about dealing with the turning ball.

And while the Sri Lankans can rejoice in their first series win against the Proteas in 12 years, it indeed causes for concern for the lovers of keen contests in cricket. Especially if one is interested in balanced battles across the twenty-two yards.

Recent years have seen a ridiculous shift of balance towards the home side. Robust analysis methods aided by technological advances in the science of pitch preparation have made bilateral Test matches almost no-contests. From the turn of the last decade, the odds have been getting more and more heavily stacked in favour of the hosting nation.

The Win-Loss ratio at away venues had been 0.619 in the 2000s. In the 2010s it has come down to 0.534, the lowest since the three Test matches of the 1870s. if we ignore those odd encounters at the very inception of Test cricket as a format, we will discover that it has never been this bad.

In all this mad swing of balance in favour of the home side, South Africa were a notable exception. In fact, they were the only team who seemed to be undeterred by the venue and conditions.

As teams crumbled abroad, again and again, the Proteas held their own.

During the first few years of this decade, from the beginning of 2010 to the end of season 2014-15, every team had the worse of the exchanges when it came to overseas battles. India fared perhaps the worst among the big sides, playing 30 matches in the period, winning just 4 and losing 17. The other big sides did not suffer that much, but they all had more losses than wins. Australia won 8 and lost 11, England and Pakistan won 7 times while losing 8 and 11 respectively.

However, during this same period, South Africa played 15 Test matches in foreign conditions, won 8 and drew the remaining 7. They did not lose any Test.

They won 2-0 in West Indies and England, 1-0 in New Zealand and Australia, 1-0 in Sri Lanka and won the one-off Test against Zimbabwe.

They were literally the last men standing against the increasing power of home rule.

However, since then things have not been that positive for the Rainbow nation when they have found themselves in unfamiliar conditions.

It started with the late summer of 2015, when incessant rains ensured a stalemate in the two-Test series against Bangladesh. The rains aside, in the first Test, the one that saw relatively more cricket, the tourists had to concede a healthy first-innings lead.

When later that year they visited India, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravinder Jadeja shared 54 wickets as they were crushed 3-0 in the four-match series. The first overseas series loss suffered by the Proteas in a long, long time.

It might have seemed a temporary blip. After all, India was a notoriously difficult land to conquer. Besides, the side went on to win a hard-fought series in Australia by a 2-1 verdict before pipping New Zealand 1-0 across the Tasman Sea .

But, then, the conditions in Australia and New Zealand have never been quite that challenging for the Proteas, primarily because the conditions are not that unfamiliar or intimidating.

Jan 2010 to March 2015 March 2015 onwards
P W L P W L
South Africa in Overseas Tests 15 8 0 18 4 9
India during the same period 30 4 17 14 8 3

It was when the Englishmen trounced them 3-1 in Old Blighty that it was clear that the final frontier had been conquered by the pattern of home advantage.

Not only was it swing of James Anderson, which was always going to be a threat in England. It was the ineptness with which the apparently innocuous spin of Moeen Ali was dealt with. Moeen ran away with 25 wickets in the series, 5 more than Anderson’s 20. It was becoming increasingly evident that Hashim Amla’s peak was over, AB de Villiers was too infrequently available, and Dale Steyn was too often injured. The side which had stood the overseas test for so long were crumbling rather too easily on foreign soil.

The Sri Lankan debacle shows that South Africans have irrevocably joined the riff-raff of cricket, who travel abroad only to make up the numbers, to be used as a punching bag by the hosts.

Since the summer of 2015, South Africa have won 4 and lost 9 of their Tests away from home. Well, that makes them just about like any other team. Sri Lanka have identical record, England and New Zealand worse. And while Pakistan and Australia have done better they have both lost more than they have won.

During that period of when South African resistance in foreign fields tailed off, only one side managed to have an admirable record abroad. Strangely, it has been India who have started changing from pathetic travellers to a considerable force in alien conditions.

One may argue that they have not ventured to the lands where they have bit foreign dust in recent times, Australia and England. But they have beaten Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka twice, in 2015 and 2017, have had the better of West Indies in the Caribbeans and fought South Africa hard when they were there earlier this year. But for some strange decisions regarding team composition, they might very well have won their first series there as well.

In all India have won 8 and lost 3 of their 14 overseas Tests since the 2015 summer. Which makes them the last men standing in this regard. Irrespective of one’s allegiance and leanings, cricket followers should hope for the success of India as they play England next month, if only to ensure that Test cricket is not relegated into something akin to a penalty kick taken by the host nation.

 

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