The machine-gun toting policemen at the entrance to the team hotel here watch with indolent amusement as camera-toting mediapersons swarm around the lobby in search of a familiar Indian cricketing face. “They (the Indian players) are not here,” says a fearsomely whiskered gentleman, leaning forward on his gun with disturbing casualness. “They are at practice, but nothing is happening,” he adds.
And just two days before the series begins, nothing is. There are no crowds gathered outside the hotel, worshipfully waiting for a quick wave from some godlike personality from behind a partially curtained window. There is no obsessive fan sneakily making it through, defying authority for a long-coveted autograph. There are even no gussied-up children of local IAS officials waiting for a picture with a player, hastily arranged by the local association.
There is only the media, watched therefore with indulgent condescension. It should be a pleasant change, but it all seems rather flat.
This is the series grandly dubbed by the broadcaster as the 'world championship of cricket'; India vs South Africa, a series all of two Tests long. It was hastily cobbled together out of the original five-match ODI series late last year. This, after the belated realisation struck the Indian cricket board that the newly crowned No. 1 Test team in the world would quickly lose bragging rights if they didn't play any Tests in the first half of 2010. For that, India had to finish No. 1 on April 1. Therefore, this series.
Technically, the broadcasters are correct. Coincidentally, South Africa's erratic year allowed India to take that ranking away from the Proteas in December. To get it back, the Proteas, currently World No. 2, need to beat India.
So at stake here is the world No. 1 Test ranking, the International Cricket Council's Test Championship mace and $175,000 — small change in a world where a player can make a third of that in three hours flat while clobbering a ball around an IPL game.
More important than all this though, is the fact that this is an unexpected shot at legitimacy for the Board of Control for Cricket in India. India, for all their individual brilliance and moments of glory, for all the BCCI's stockpiles of cash and braggadocio, have never finished the year as No. 1.
And there is a more genuine ring to being the board that produces the world's best team rather than just the “world's richest Board”— even in a form of the game the BCCI had otherwise consigned to the fuddy-duddy realm of 'everybody's-playing-it-and-so-must-we'.
The last time India played a planned Test series of two matches against a team other than bottom-placed Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, was 10 years ago, also against South Africa. One led by Hansie Cronje, yes, that same side that ripped world cricket apart with the match-fixing admissions.
Almost 10 years later, the world has changed, forgiven, moved on and India and SA now battle for top honours in a world that is right again. Ironical though, that this battle for legitimacy begins at the scene of the crime — Cronje's confessions of fixing centred around a Nagpur ODI, while shady deals were brokered in these same hotel rooms.