Bangalore: How do you assess a cricketing rivalry? By how well matched the two protagonists are? Through head-to-head numbers? Or is the whole concept of rivalry something more visceral, to do with the intensity and excitement that make encounters unforgettable?
Conventional cricket statistics fall short because they cannot factor in context. VVS Laxman retired with only 17 Test centuries, and an average just under 46. In the modern age, with pitches where even 300-run chases are becoming routine, those figures are unremarkable. But they also reveal how stupid we are to give so much importance to certain numbers.
Each year, you see at least a dozen pedestrian Test hundreds that won’t be remembered the following week. Laxman played two of the greatest innings of the past decade – 73 against Australia at Mohali when he could barely walk, leave alone bend, and a 96 at Kingsmead, when no other batsman crossed 40. Many Test centuries aren’t fit to be mentioned in the same sentence as those two innings.
If you skim through the numbers with little concern for context, they’ll tell you that the India-England series should be a more gripping contest than that between Australia and South Africa. In the two decades since South Africa were readmitted to the international fold, Australia have won 19 and lost just eight of the 32 Tests they’ve played. Three of the South African wins were in dead rubbers.
Contrast that with India and England who have played 25 Tests in the same period. India edge it eight-seven, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one game from the lot that’s remembered as a classic. Not one of the matches went to the wire or left you sitting on the edge of a seat, wan-faced and with no nails left to bite.
South Africa against Australia may not have been a clash of equals, but the two teams have made a habit of conjuring up some of the greatest matches in the game’s long history. Marvin Hagler against Thomas Hearns lasted just three rounds in 1985, but the first was boxing at its most primal and brutal – fighting of such white-hot intensity that Hearns broke a hand.
Cast your eye back over the Australia-South Africa series of the past 20 years and you’ll find that almost each one has produced a game for the ages. At Sydney in 1994, it was Fanie de Villiers that inspired a five-run South African heist. At Port Elizabeth three years later, with Allan Donald bowling like a zephyr and on a pitch where no one else crossed 55, Mark Waugh chiselled out 116 of the classiest and bravest runs you could hope to see. Australia won by two wickets.
At Newlands ten years ago, Ricky Ponting finished unbeaten on 100 as Australia chased down 331 to take the series. At the SCG four years later, he walloped 143 off just 159 balls as Australia made a mockery of the pursuit of 288, at a venue where more than 200 had not been chased in over a century.
In the return series, Damien Martyn’s 101 was instrumental in the overhauling of 292 at the Wanderers. That two-wicket margin was reprised at the same venue last year, with Pat Cummins the hero on debut. Like the bout that they ended up calling The War all those years ago, the two teams continue to deal in hammer blows.
You’ll find very little of that drama if you peruse the modern history of the India-England rivalry. Most of the victories on either side have been emphatic. Even the most famous of the lot – India’s pursuit of 387 at Chennai four years ago – had an air of inevitability to it once Virender Sehwag mauled the new-ball bowlers to the tune of 83 from just 68 balls. There was certainly tension in the stands at Chepauk that day, but by early afternoon most fans were also getting their heads around the idea that fourth-innings chases were no longer guaranteed debacles like Lord Cardigan’s charge in the Crimea.
Over the coming days, you’ll see smokescreens and hear plenty of hype – everything from the possible renaissance of Sehwag and Gambhir, to Delhi Belly and mischievous suggestions about Bunsen-burner pitches. But if you really love the game, don’t forget to set your alarm clock to catch the action from the Gabba. That’s likely to be the contest with the real fizz.