It is a truth universally acknowledged (or at least it is in the world of international cricket) that teams visiting the Indian subcontinent are as unable to cope with the mysteries of spin generated by pitch and weather conditions in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh as the teams from those countries are unable to cope with the pace and bounce of pitches in Australia and South Africa and the swing-friendly conditions of England. This iron rule appears to be holding fast.
Having scaled the heights to be the 2011 World Cup champions and number-one Test team in the world, India visited England and Australia where they have contrived to lose an astonishing seven Test matches in a row (and by embarrassingly large margins)—unable it seems to deal with the cool moistness of England or dry heat of Australia. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka performed dismally in South Africa, while England (currently the best Test team in the world) were just thrashed by a resurgent Pakistan side on the sub-continental style dry and dusty pitches of the United Arab Emirates.
Yet beneath the familiar narrative is another set of stories. The Indian team, much to the despair of their supporters, seems disengaged and uninterested. Their stars of yesteryear are showing their age: it looks as though V. V. S. Laxman will retire at the end of the series with Australia and Virender Sehwag may concentrate on the one-day game. Rahul Dravid, who had such a banner year in 2011, will surely be under great pressure to quit after a string of poor performances, as will Sachin Tendulkar, once he reaches the magic milestone of his century of international centuries. It’s clear that it’s time for a change: even, perhaps, of leadership. The totemic captain, M. S. Dhoni, looks as though he doesn’t really care anymore.
The South Africa team is shaping up as serious contenders for the top position in Test cricket, with exciting new prospects such as Vernon Philander joining the best fast bowler (Dale Steyn) and greatest all-rounder (Jacques Kallis) in the world. Sri Lanka might not have fared as badly as India in Australia, but South Africa look as if they might shake off their label as perpetual also-rans. England simply looked rusty. The team hasn’t played Test cricket since last summer and it showed. Pakistan, after a disastrous 2010, spent 2011 regrouping and becoming a formidable unit.
These five teams—India, Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and England—are now within reasonable striking distance of each other in their battle to take the top spot in Test cricket. To maintain that position at number one for any length of time, one team is going to have to learn how to play in all conditions. Who will it be?