When all the talk of settling scores, revenge pitches and bullying the bullies is done, let’s remember that cricket is just a game. A lucrative sport, a game that demands so much of its players, but still a game. It’s still supposed to be fun and both South Africa and India are planning on having some over the next few months.
“We are looking at this phase as a time we will remember forever for the rest of our lives,” Virat Kohli said on India’s arrival in the country last Saturday. “We want to enjoy playing together. That has been the highlight of this team. The team spirit is the standout feature.”
Kohli was not only referring to the next three weeks, when India play South Africa in three Tests, but the next 12 months. India tour three tough overseas destinations in 2018 – after South Africa, they visit England and then Australia – in a true test of their abilities away from home.
No longer are they terrified travellers. India, a team with a diverse attack and a classy line-up, they play under a confident captain in Kohli, are motivated by a showboating coach and think they can take some names on the road. “We honestly feel we have the skillset. Now is the opportunity because of the average age of the group and the amount of cricket we are going to play together in the future. We are not putting pressure on ourselves that we have to win in every country,” Kohli said.
South Africa have the opposite consideration. Their high-profile match-ups only last for the first three months of this year, hosting India and Australia at home. Instead, their challenge is to dominate at home, something they have not done against stronger sides in recent years. While India have never won a series in South Africa, they’ve kept the hosts on their toes. Though South Africa have a hat-trick of triumphs in Australia since readmission, they don’t have a single one at home.
Given that the South African home calendar clears completely from April to July, when they go to Sri Lanka, and that next summer’s incoming tours will include Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the next three months of Test action are the most important of Ottis Gibson’s tenure and of the latter portion of many players’ careers.
Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander are all over 30, and have all suggested the 2019 World Cup will be a swansong. So these next seven Tests could be important end notes on their impressive careers and they know it, even though du Plessis’ sees them as being together for longer.
“The next two or three years are going to be very exciting for South African cricket. We are maturing a lot more – both the ODI team and Test team,” du Plessis said. “If you look at the names we have available this series, it’s a very strong team on paper. I’d like to look at it that for the next three years we can push really hard to get to No. 1 and to stay there for quite a bit.
“I don’t know when the next Test series against India is, but it’s probably the last time all of us play against India and there’s no better way than playing a series in South Africa. We were disappointed the last time we went there and we’ve got a score to settle, so we’re excited for this series.”
South Africa have not been able to put out a squad of this quality for more than two years, since they had their No.1 ranking ripped from them on raging turners in India in late 2015. That they can do it against the same team in vastly differing conditions not only gives them confidence of making up some ground in their quest for the summit, but also means the chances of a more competitive match-up are much higher. And that’s good news for the all those who want series’ between South Africa and India to become icon clashes.
Though South Africa were sidelined from the big three in administrative terms, they still consider themselves part of a big four in Test terms and the new FTP all but confirms that. They want to continue to be regarded among the format’s elite, and this summer will go a long way to cementing that status. “It’s good that we can have some importance to this series. Big series are why you play. We don’t have an Ashes, so it’s good to see that India versus South Africa can start becoming a really big series,” du Plessis said. “There are some really high-class players that are going to bash it out over the next few weeks so that’s exciting.”
All those players want to win, but they should also want something more. They may do well to remember the attitude Brendon McCullum endorsed during New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup campaign, which he called “the greatest time of our lives”.
New Zealand’s cricketers captured their country’s imagination on their road to the final. They weren’t crowned champions at the end but they won the biggest prize: the hearts, the minds and the souls, because they played in the right spirit. Of course, they would not have become fan favourites if they hadn’t won at least a little but it was their manner, more than anything else, that became so celebrated. South Africa and India will want to achieve something similar and make memories over the next few months.