Cricket in the times of Covid. It’s got its own dynamics. You can only interact with the players digitally at the time of their choosing.
A far cry from the days when you could have a conversation with a cricketer even during the nets, times have changed, so has the game.
It is not easy for the players either. Being in the Covid-induced ‘bubble’ can make physical and mental demands.
As soon as the Qatar Airways flight touches down at the Oliver Tambo Airport, your credentials are tested.
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International travel has become so demanding in times of Covid. You need to get yourself tested for Covid 72 hours before flight, need to have your vaccination certificate, these are asked at every point.
The South African authorities are strict at the airport border control. Their own country has been in sharp focus with the emergence of Covid’s variant of `Concern’ Omricorn there.
You step outside the airport and you see that the face masks are out. And sanitisers are kept at public places.
The South Africans are taking no chances. This is Christmas time but the celebrations are muted.
This correspondent takes a taxi from the airport to Centurion, the venue for the first India-South Africa Test, a 45-minute drive.
Meanwhile Rahul Dravid and his boys are in South Africa. This is the batting legend’s first assignment as coach on foreign soil.
He is relaxed as he addresses the media over Zoom. The Indian coach exudes confidence but warns South Africa is always a tough team to beat at home.
For India, this tour is about conquering the Final Frontier. South Africa is the only major Test playing nation where India has still not won a Test series.
Centurion is a lovely open arena with `Hills’ where the spectators can spend the day under the sun while enjoying the game.
Unfortunately, there won’t be any spectators for the series. A consequence of the Omricorn surge.
The stands are almost empty — only the corporate boxes have some viewers.
The press box is full, though, but with adequate space for social distancing. And you are allowed inside only if you show the vaccination certificate.
Cricket is engrossing. The manner K. L. Rahul, an effortless six hitter in the shorter formats, was ‘leaving’ deliveries outside off was a revelation.
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During the match, this correspondent catches up with former South African opener Alviro Petersen. He laments that the quality of domestic cricket has gone down in his country.
Eventually, Rahul’s 123 is the difference between the two sides. And the Indian pacemen, led by Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, who reaches 200 Test wickets, are on target.
For South Africa, beanpole debutant left-arm seamer Marco Jansen makes an immediate impact with his lovely side-on action, his close to the stump release, his left-armer’s angle and natural bounce.
Hours after the match ends comes the bombshell. Quinton de Kock retires from Test cricket and will represent South Africa only in the white ball games.
The enigmatic de Kock, a gifted cricketer, is only 29 and his retirement from Tests is in keeping with the trend of many young cricketers leaving the longer format to create more time and space for playing in the cash-rich Twenty20 leagues around the world.
Wanderers, the venue for the next Test, is a happy hunting ground for India with two Test victories. Can India conquer the Final Frontier here?
The venue, also called the Bullring for the intensity of the combats, is a paradise for the pacemen.
The Test begins and it is K. L. Rahul who walks out with Dean Elgar with Virat Kohli pulling out of the Test with an upper back spasm.
Ahead of the match coach Dravid has spoken about how well Kohli led the boys, communicated with them, set an example with his training, and kept his team insulated from all the outside chatter. Dravid was looking forward to Kohli’s 100th Test, which would have come at Cape Town.
Kohli’s removal-from-ODI-captaincy saga continues and selector Chetan Sharma has a few words to say. Is Kohli hurt by all these remarks?
The Test gets underway and what a battle it is with fortunes swinging one way, then the other.
This correspondent catches up with South Africa’s former match-winning seam bowler Vernon Philander. He is disappointed with de Kock’s Test retirement. Worries about Test cricket’s future. “To me Test cricket is the pinnacle. The purest form of the game,” he says.
In the middle, paceman Shardul Thakur emerges from the shadows of his more illustrious team-mates and scalps a career-best seven-for, hitting the cracks on the pitch consistently and achieving bounce and movement. Some balls keep low as well.
Then, the explosive Kagiso Rabada unleashes a game changing spell of searing hostility, Rishabh plays a terrible shot, old soldiers Cheteshwar Puajara and Ajinkya make a statement, Hanuma Vihari displays his promise. Finally, it boils down to South Africa chasing 240 to level the series.
Captain Courageous, Dean Elgar, takes blows on his body but bats on, building partnerships around him. The Indian pacemen disappoint on a conducive pitch.
Elgar unbeaten on a blood-and-guts 96, South Africa win by seven wickets to level the series.
Now it is over to Cape Town for the decider.