By Suresh Menon
Is this the beginning of the end of the world's number one team (or maybe even the middle portion of the end, after the 0-2 defeat against India)? Is this beginning of the beginning for South Africa, otherwise known as the underachievers and chokers of world cricket?
In sport, often one swallow is all that is needed to make a summer. And the biggest sport outside of the actual sport is the rush to tear down champion teams and champion players. There is too the columnist's curse - he has to see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, not to speak of a trend in a single event.
And it all came together last week. Australia lost a Test match they could not have lost, prompting the question - Is this the beginning of the end of the world's number one team (or maybe even the middle portion of the end, after the 0-2 defeat against India)? Is this beginning of the beginning for South Africa, otherwise known as the underachievers and chokers of world cricket? Is Graeme Smith the greatest South African captain ever? Is it the end of the road for Matthew Hayden? Have Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid found the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel? Is Kevin Pietersen the new face of cricket, not just for his switch hitting but for his statesman-like behaviour and his century in a Test match with a broken rib?
You can take any of the above as the starting point, and build a whole edifice on it. The events are inter-related too, making the whole thing more interesting. "Pull a thread here and you'll find it's attached to the rest of the world," says a character in a novel I was reading recently, The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam. Likewise, speak of Dravid's revival and other players of his generation, Kallis in particular, force their way into the discussion. South Africa's ascendancy cannot be seen in isolation without Australia's dip too featuring in the story.
Which of the events of the last week are harbingers of trends and which are one-off? Which are significant and which merely incidental - and don't forget the West Indies and New Zealand are involved in a Test series too. Has Dravid extended his career by another couple of years, will Hayden do a Dravid and climb out of his poor form? At this point another element enters the discussion - national character. Indians tend to be sentimental and give their heroes a long rope; Australians tend to be more result-oriented and if you don't deliver you are out of the team. Not even the world's most experienced cricketer, Steve Waugh could buck that system.
The signs of Australia's decline have been around for a while now. Perhaps ever since India toured there last. Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were bound to be missed, but the world champions were carried forward by the sheer momentum of their victories in the past. Over a longer period, the weaknesses become more obvious, the gaps more exaggerated. This is certainly a team in decline, and captains who seem totally in control when things are going right, suddenly appear indecisive and bereft of ideas when things go wrong. You can see this with Ricky Ponting, now beginning to look more like George W Bush than ever.
There are no automatic successors. South Africa are ahead right now only because they won in Australia while India's wins were at home. India look a good, organized team, with all their batsmen in form, their opening bowlers in great nick and the spinners taking wickets even while not bowling at their best.
However you look at it, Test cricket is king right now, and that is the best news cricket has had in a long time.