Test cricket series a distraction from ill-feeling
A series between the top two test teams promises much on the field, where excitement and drama is desperately needed to distract from the ill feeling between the Indian and South African cricket boards.
It is No 2-ranked India's sublime batting lineup against top-ranked South Africa's fierce fast bowlers. And who is picked at No 4 for India in place of the retired Sachin Tendulkar is a story all on its own.
But the buildup to the battle at the top of the test rankings has so far been more about officials at the Board of Control for Cricket in India and Cricket South Africa going head-to-head in a game of cricket politics.
CSA appointed Haroon Lorgat as its new chief executive in July against the wishes of the BCCI, which responded by canceling games and cutting its tour by more than half, leaving South Africa with a depleted home season.
What is left is a brief two-test series and three one-day internationals, with the BCCI stripping seven international games from its itinerary in South Africa because of the spat. Lorgat, the former ICC chief executive who has a history of run-ins with India's cricket leadership, also agreed to play no role in the monthlong tour to ensure it went ahead at all.
So much for sledging between players getting out of hand.
India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni recognised the squabbling between the boards as his team arrived in South Africa, and expressed feelings likely shared by millions of South Africans and around a billion Indian fans, who have been robbed of a series of decent length.
"We can arrange a match for the administrators and let them go at them because we were busy playing cricket and we had nothing to do with it," Dhoni said.
In contrast, Dhoni said, the Indian and South African players have always enjoyed a competitive but respectful rivalry - something lost on the administrators.
"We see a bit of chirping going around, which makes cricket very interesting," Dhoni said of the two sets of players, "but so far there has never been a single case where the guys have crossed the line and become too personal. So that's a good sign, which means we'll have a good series."
South Africa is possibly the most settled test team in the world and - barring any injuries - will likely be very close in the opening test in Johannesburg starting on December 18 to the 11 in the Proteas' last five-day game, an innings win over Pakistan in October.
India has recalled experienced left-arm seamer Zaheer Khan for the tour and given a place in the test squad to middle-order batsman Ambati Rayudu, but its lineup at the Wanderers will be dominated by one question: Who will replace the irreplaceable Tendulkar at No 4?
There are already three ultra-strong contenders in Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. So far the Indians say they haven't decided, while the team maybe hasn't yet fully come to terms with the absence of Tendulkar, the game's most prolific run-scorer and most worshipped player who ended his celebrated 24-year career last month.
"Well, it's difficult from the point of view that the last test we played he was with us so we haven't played a test without him," India coach Duncan Fletcher said. "So we're only going to have those sorts of feelings and emotions when we go into the next test ... it will be a difficult one to answer until we have played that first test and he is not in the side, not batting at No 4, and we'll get a feeling and a gauge of how we miss him."
Before India plays that momentous first test of the post-Tendulkar era, the three-game ODI series starts on Thursday. The tests are in Johannesburg from December 18-22 and in Durban from December 26-30.