Will Quinn | 8:25pm gmt 27 Sep 2009
Newlands Cricket Stadium in Cape Town, renowned for its fantastic scenery, now houses the world`s top-ranked cricketing nation.
South Africa is a unique place to watch test cricket. Grounds are never empty, but they're rarely full as the majority of fans save themselves for limited-over games. Tickets are remarkably cheap, and the Western culture draws a lot of beer-drinking fans out for a day in the sun. In keeping with the country itself, the stadiums are stunningly beautiful with the Wanderers and Newlands amongst the greatest places for cricket in the world. Now, South Africa is also home to the world's number one cricket team.
Their test side is built around dangerous fast bowlers who can strike at any time and a solid batting lineup that specialises in navigating difficult chases at the tail-end of a match. Bowlers charge in on green wickets, moving the ball through the air and off the seam to give visiting batsmen nightmares, backed up by some of the best fielders around. An array of strokeplayers try to dominate opposition attacks and take the game away from them, characterised by a stubborn refusal to give up no matter how unlikely a win may appear. South Africa are more than worthy of the world number one spot.
Yet they are not without their weaknesses. Their spin attack is forever underwhelming, and for whatever reason they struggle to win games at home consistently to the extent that so many great sides have. Two things that certainly could not be said of their closest challengers, India.
Test cricket in India could scarcely be more contrasting. A boiling hot climate bakes pitches and makes them slow, as well as ensuring that the new red ball rarely swings, making fast bowling somewhat ineffective at times. Their own quicks have mastered the art of getting the job done in such conditions though, with bowlers reversing the ball into batsmen's pads late in the day. But the real strength of the Indian attack is in their spinners. Priding themselves on the ability to outthink a batsman, they toil all day in blinding heat, prising a way through opposition defences like thieves trying to pick a lock. Their captain marshals his troops brilliantly from behind the stumps, searching for weaknesses and playing with field settings.
Heavily partisan crowds come to massive stadiums to watch a batting lineup filled with legends of the game defy all comers on pitches that favour their strokeplay. Taking twenty wickets to win a game in India is all but impossible for visitors at times. Banners and signs decorate the stands, deifying their own players and demoralising the opposition. They may sometimes struggle on their travels, but many would say India is the toughest place to come and win a test series in the world.
One group who might disagree is the Sri Lankans, who were elevated to second place in the rankings recently having won every home series they've played for three and a half years. Somewhat milder in character than the Indian or South African sides, Sri Lanka's strength is in their array of strange and unusual bowlers. Spinners with uncanny variations trick batsmen from both ends on wickets that often turn throughout the match, while medium-pacers test the patience of their opponents with movement through the air and off the pitch. Several classy batsmen have mastered batting at home, making winning a match in Sri Lanka a seriously tough ask.
Yet many believe their inability to win outside of their own country will prevent them from becoming the world's undisputed best side- a title only recently surrendered by Australia, who may yet have a say in the matter. Australian cricket has all the feel of a crumbling empire, with a side composed largely of all-time greats gradually giving way to less talented successors. Australia still attracts the biggest crowds to test matches in the world, with huge concrete bowls packed with fans accustomed to seeing their side crush all comers with ease in glorious sunshine.
From the embers of a glorious side springs a highly professional outfit with a quality batting lineup and fast bowlers that can take sides apart on their day. While young and inexperienced, cricket fans all over the world have learned the hard way that the Australians should never be written off. Should the current crop of players mature into another generation of great cricketers, they could yet retain the crown only officially relinquished last month on a difficult trip to England.
The English are a strange case indeed, often appearing somewhat mediocre for large parts of a game before suddenly winning it in one hour of brilliance. Their strength is in swinging the ball through the air, something seen much more often in England than anywhere else in the test-playing world. On a gloomy London afternoon, their bowlers transform from ineffective trundlers into fearsome fast bowlers, swinging the ball past the bat and into the pads time and time again at serious pace. Their fans continue to get behind them despite years of frustration, and as the Aussies found out last month, it's never an easy place to go. Their mercurial talents present a considerable challenge to any side hoping to make it to the top.
Australia's demise has ushered in the most competitive era in cricketing history, with several countries jostling for position at the top of tree. The contrasting styles and abilities of each side adds spice to what is sure to be a fascinating period for the game. When one side finally emerges as the unchallenged best in the world, they will have well and truly earned it.