Last Saturday, 2 February, South Africa took 128 minutes and 29.1 overs to bowl out Pakistan for 49. Dale Steyn took six wickets, conceding eight runs. Shylock would have swooned.
In November, India goes to South Africa to play a three-Test series. When I saw the Pakistan scorecard, I panicked and called up a cricket expert friend. What, I asked in a quivering voice, will happen to India on those fast southern hemisphere pitches?
Because, skittling out Pakistan for 49, though awesome, is only the tip of the iceberg. When one considers that South Africa has now bowled out rival teams thrice for under 50 in the last 14 months, the more appropriate word would be “terrifying”.
Exactly a month before Pakistan’s ignominy, on 2 January, at Newlands, Cape Town, New Zealand were all out for just 45 runs. The butchery took only 100 minutes and 19.2 overs. Vernon Philander claimed five wickets for seven runs.
In November 2011, also at Newlands, South Africa did an even quicker job on Australia. Ninetyfive minutes, 18 overs, 47 all out. Philander five for 15.
According to the latest International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings, South Africa is the No 1 Test team in the world. South Africans top all three Test player categories. Hashim Amla is the No. 1 batsman, Steyn the No. 1 bowler, and Jacques Kallis the No. 1 all-rounder. There are three South Africans among the top 10 batsmen, three among the top 10 bowlers, and two in the all-rounder list.
In 63 tests, Steyn has bagged 323 wickets, with 21 five-wicket hauls. Philander has 78 wickets in 14 tests with eight five-wicketers. These are extraordinary statistics (Of course, the most extraordinary fact of all is that in the recent concluded Indian Premier League auction, no team picked up Philander; clearly the team owners know something that we mere mortals don’t ).
And that’s just the bowling part. In November-December last year, after drawing two Tests in Australia, South Africa won the last one at Perth by 309 runs. The 309 is not the point here; Tests have been won by larger margins. What was spectacular was the way South Africa batted in their second innings. They scored 569 at 5.08 runs per over, that is, at a healthy one-dayer rate, with Hashim Amla scoring 196 off 221 balls, and AB De Villiers 169 off 184. It was slaughter.
This was hardly a one-off hi-jinks display. A few months before this, in England, South Africa declared at 637 for two (yes, two) in the Oval Test. Amla was 311 not out, Kallis 182 not out, and captain Graeme Smith had made 131. South Africa won the three-Test series 2-0 and dislodged England from its No 1 position among Test teams.
To go back to statistics again, South Africa has four batsmen with batting averages above or very close to 50: Kallis with 56.48, Amla with 51.94, de Villiers with 49.96, and Smith with 49.15. And of course, Kallis bowls very well, too, thank you, and de Villiers is arguably the best wicketkeeper in the world right now. In fact, while hardly anyone talks about it, it is now almost an undeniable fact that Kallis, with 44 centuries and 288 wickets, is the greatest all-rounder the game has ever seen. Yes, greater than Sir Garry Sobers.
To come back to my panicky phone call. As horrific visions of repeated exterminations of the Indian team rose before my eyes, I was amazed to find that my cricket expert friend was unfazed. Not to worry, he told me. Of course we’ll lose, quite possibly we’ll lose all three Tests, but India will never be all out for less than 50. I asked what the basis of his confidence was. Oh, that’s the way it is with India, he explained, his tone the audio version of a cheerful shrug with raised eyebrows and a smile. Someone always scores some runs. Maybe Gautam Gambhir will score a 53 while no one else reaches double digits. Maybe it’ll be 27 for 5, and Dhoni will come in and score 47 with four sixes. When all seems lost, Ashwin will hit a fluent 40, with Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma providing him shaky company. It’s always that way with India.
When you talk about the Indian cricket team, don’t get bogged down in statistics, he advised me, a bit condescendingly, I thought. Sure, go by the numbers when you think of the South Africans, those unblinking cyborgs. But always keep the black swan in mind. South Africa is applied science, India is abstract art. Microprocessor design and Jackson Pollock. When Pollock chucked the first blob of paint on a huge blank canvas, do you think he had a clue what the final painting would end up looking like? That’s what Indian cricket is like. Indian cricket is ineffable. Now I must put the phone down, I need to do my one hour of hatha yoga.
He cut the line, and I googled to find out what “ineffable” means. There are no words for it, it seems.