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Smith lays hands on the Mace

The moment that Graeme Smith has been waiting years for finally happened.  And what better place for it to happen than at the home of cricket.  South Africa closed out the match and the series against England, at Lords’, securing the top spot on the ICC Test cricket rankings.

It has been a long time for South Africa.  Way back in early 2009 – over three years ago – Smith had one hand on the mace. South Africa had just beaten Australia in a series in Australia, for the very first time.  And that the first time that Australia had lost a home series in 15 years and their declining team had to face the Proteas in South Africa.   A win to South Africa that would assure them of top spot seemed a formality.  So it seemed.  But they inexplicably let the mace slip through their fingers.  They dropped it.  Very much like Herschelle Gibbs dropped the World Cup in 1999.

But there were no such stumbles in 2012 in England.  After sweeping the hosts aside in the first Test, the next two meetings were tight but South Africa prevailed.  As a statistical aside, England led by six runs on the first innings in both the 2nd and 3rd Tests but could not press home their advantage.

The current ICC standings have South Africa, England and Australia in the top three places.  India has plummeted to 5th place.

Rank Team Matches Points Rating

1

South Africa

25

3002

120

2

England

36

4195

117

3

Australia

34

3952

116

4

Pakistan

29

3148

109

5

India

29

3004

104

6

Sri Lanka

29

2834

98

7

West Indies

28

2509

90

8

New Zealand

21

1670

80

Source: http://www.icc-cricket.com/match_zone/test_predictor.php

 At the end of last summer, David Warner expressed the solemn desire that the Australians would  have reclaimed the number one position before they next meet England.  How bold.  Most thought that a long shot and there is still work to do but the fact is that when South Africa and Australia meet in this coming summer, the winner of the series will be the number one ranked team.

South Africa is very highly regarded and they are strong in all departments but the series with Australia may well be close.   Less then 12 months ago, Australia drew 1-1 with South Africa in South Africa.  The South Africans have changed little.  In fact, nine of the 11 that were defeated by Australia just played in the Lords’ Test and the bowling attack was exactly the same.  If all are fit, Australia has a much improved bowling attack but as much as ever to worry about with the batting line-up!

It all bodes well for some great Test cricket over the next 18 months, with Australia taking on England in back-to-back Ashes series after they are done with the Proteas.

VVS Laxman: a very, very special batsman

Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman has retired from international cricket.  For the record, this is the first time I have ever bothered to look at his proper, full name.  As for most of the cricketing world, he has always been simply “VVS”.  I don’t know when I first heard this play on his initials – perhaps it was Jim Maxwell that coined it – but Laxman has been deserving of the moniker “very, very special” for a very long time.

As an Australian, I simply cannot let this event pass without recognition.  Laxman retires as a legend of Indian and world cricket and most of the deeds that forged the legend were performed against Australia.  Laxman averages a shade under 46 in Test cricket but averages almost 50 against Australia.   And we must remember that most of Laxman’s career corresponded to a time when Australia was by far the dominant force in world cricket.

Laxman scored 17 centuries in 134 Test and more than one third of those were against Australia (6).  It is true that Laxman played against Australia more than any other nation (29 Tests) but the ratio is not skewed to that extend.  By contrast, in 51 Tests against England, South Africa and Pakistan, he managed just two centuries.  Laxman’s three highest Test scores are against Australia, including his only two double centuries.

If you look at the bare statistics, perhaps you might wonder if Laxman deserves legend status.  That would be a fair observation and it must be acknowledged that Laxman’s mixed results are somewhat of an enigma.  Added to that, Laxman has sometimes been seen as being lazy.  Perhaps there is also some truth in this and his running between wickets has not something for a batsman to be proud of.  However, I think that some of the “lazy” remarks are simply because Laxman makes it “look too easy”.  He plays strokes with such elegance, grace, in such an unhurried manner that this creates an impression of leisure, a little like Mark Waugh or David Gower.  However, I see that as emphasising his giftedness more than anything else.

Whatever, it is hard to argue against the legend.  If that legend must be defined by a single event, that would be quite easy to identify: In March 2001, Laxman scored 281, with an innings scored over three consecutive days and with Rahul Dravid (180), rescued a match, and series from Australia.   India was a Test down in the series, had followed on in the 2nd, and were four wickets down, still well behind Australia’s first innings.  Laxman and Dravid shared a partnership of 376 and India won the match and went on to win the series 2-1.

This is a well known and celebrated (and indeed, legendary) event but Laxman’s deeds do not end there.

The first time Laxman gave Australia a touch up was way back in January 2000, at the SCG.  It was a lost cause on that occasion but that 167 was something to behold and may have been what caused ABC commentator,  Jim Maxwell to refer to Laxman as very, very special.

The 281 followed not long after (only 4 Tests for Laxman).   Laxman made another memorable innings (148) in Adelaide in December 2003, sharing another match-winning 300 run partnership with Dravid.  He followed that up with 178 just two Tests later at the SCG.  India couldn’t close out that match or series, but it gave Steve Waugh, playing in his final Test, another reason to remember VVS Laxman.

Laxman had many lean times from 2004 until present but seemed to have the knack of doing just enough to stay in the team.  He scored 200 not out against Australia in Delhi in 2008 – only his second century against Australia, made in India (and as it turns, out those were his only Test “doubles”).  The final misery inflicted by Laxman on Australia did not result in a century but it did result in yet another famous victory, in the 1st Test in Mohali in October 2010.   Laxman made 73 not out and held the innings together as India scraped together the 216 runs required for victory, with just one wicket in hand.

Laxman’s final series against Australia, earlier this year has proven to be his final series.  What a shame that the series, both personally and for the team, was so ignominious.  While it wasn’t the best way to go out, perhaps Laxman is wise to call it a day – he is going on for 38 years old and we want to remember him as a legend.

Three Cheers for the P[i]etersens

God Bless the ECB and the West Indies Board of Control for playing Test cricket during the biggest sporting show on the planet.  The ECB had the sense to move the second Test against South Africa away from London but it backfired in some respects.  They forgot that God loves that other event (my lawyers have advised me not to use the term “Olympic Games”) and that the weather would be much better in London than way up north, at Leeds.  And so it proved.  The match ended in a rain affected draw but not before Petersen and Pietersen made their marks.

They may play for opposing teams but they are from the same country but they still can’t spell their names the same way.   In the first innings of the match, South Africa made 419 runs on the back of a fine 182 from Alviro Petersen.  The only other South African to pass fifty was Smith (52). 

England’s reply was held together by a smaller but more dramatic effort from Kevin Pietersen.  He made 149 as England lead by six runs on the first innings.  Only Prior (68) managed to join KP beyond 50 for England.

The match was marred by rain and ended in a draw but not before some excitement.  When I turned in, day 5 was well advanced and South Africa still had 10 wickets in hand.  Imagine my surprise to find a further 13 wickets fell in the day as South Africa provided some interest with some quick scoring and a declaration.

South Africa leads the three Test series 1-0.

I should not forget to mention that the West Indies have beaten New Zealand 2-0 in their home series.  The West Indies won a series against Bangladesh late last year but I don’t know when their last real series victory was.  Whatever, this is the first time since 2002 that they have won consecutive Tests in the same series.

I would imagine that all Jamaican eyes were on London as Ussain Bolt held centre stage, but it was in Kingston, Jamaica where the series victory was achieved.  And it was not all plain sailing for the Windies.  They trailed by 51 on the first innings with the challenge ahead of batting last in the match.  And they were only even in touch because Marlon Samuels made a magnificent 123 in a score of 209 (that’s 58.85% of the runs and is probably well up the list on that record).  But the West Indies fired out the Kiwis cheaply and put together the 206 runs required with the loss of five wickets.