Cricket · India

India vs South Africa: A Clash of the Titans

 

Come Thursday, India and South Africa will start a four Test series in Mohali. It is part of South Africa’s longest tour of India and the first time that the two teams will be playing a four-match series. India being the home team and South Africa being the world’s top Test side, and unbeaten on the road for the past 9 years, has created huge anticipation among fans and experts alike. For what it’s worth, I’d like to make it clear at the outset that I am a fan and supporter of the Indian team. So pardon any bias that might creep in my assessment.

Four-SA-players

 South Africa’s four horsemen of  apocalypse.
Those following the Indian team will note with amusement that they are playing a home Test match after a gap of nearly two years. Back then, the West Indies had been called to play a hastily-arranged two-match series which doubled up as Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell series too. Save for Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, none of the batting stars of the present Test team were established then. And that tells a story in itself. While the current bunch of batsmen have been through the grind and battle-hardened by having their baptism by fire across arenas around the world, there is trepidation and uncertainty as to how they will fare against the might of Dale Steyn and co. Steyn has proved in the past that despite the subcontinent conditions being alien for the visiting non-Asian teams, he has the firepower and nous to win games singlehandedly for his team, Ahmedabad 2008, Nagpur 2010 and Galle 2013 being the examples. There is also the threat of the metronomic Vernon Philander. He might not have as shining a subcontinental record as his more successful new-ball partner, but he has the ability to move the ball both ways and attack the stumps relentlessly, attributes that are very handy in these conditions. They are backed by the lanky Morne Morkel who showed in the ODIs what he is capable of, getting disconcertingly stiff bounce from just short of a good length, that too at a lethal speed. If the Indian batsmen can blunt these three, there’s no doubt whatsoever in my mind that we will come out victors. Although that’s much easier said than done. Not for nothing are South Africa the World’s No. 1 team. And not for nothing have they never lost a Test series after Sri Lanka 2006 (the series in which Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara racked up a world-record partnership of 624 runs in a single innings). They have always found ways to succeed in spite of the conditions and have also successfully seen off the transition period following the retirements of all-time greats like Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis. The holy trinity of their batting, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers, have been making runs by the buckets, with Amla and de Villiers taking the 2nd and 4th spot on the ICC’s batsmen’s rankings. Amla has been in indifferent form recently but his past record in India is extraordinary, with an average in excess of 100 from 6 matches. The few weak places in their team are the openers, the lower middle order and the spinner’s slot. A lot of foreign batsmen have announced their arrival on the world stage from India including Michael Clarke. Matthew Hayden and Alastair Cook. No offence to Dean Elgar and Stiaan Van Zyl but they might have to play out of their skins to follow into the footsteps of the greats mentioned above. That’s an area where South Africa are vulnerable I think. The batting order is heavily dependent on the holy trinity. While JP Duminy is a very capable batsman, he might miss the first match and India have a chance to draw first blood if they can get through the trinity early. The spinner’s slot is another one where SA seem to be under-equipped. Historically, SA have depended on their pacemen to do the job but lately their spinners have got into the act too, so much so that upon arriving in India, du Plessis claimed that they have a match-winning spinner with them too. Imran Tahir is being talked up in some circles for a possible return to the team but in my opinion, Simon Harmer is going to be more of a danger despite being relatively unheard of in these parts. That’s because India have shown an uncharacteristic weakness against both  innocuous-looking and classic offspinners  in the recent past, from Graeme Swann to Moeen Ali to Nathan Lyon. A lot of it is down to the kind of pitches being prepared for the Ranji Trophy matches that have grass coverings and don’t allow for spinners to come into play that much leading to the batsmen being weaker against spinners when they play international teams and the spinners proving incompetent when facing up to world-class opponents. So apart from Steyn, if I had to put my money on a South African bowler, I’d say Simon Harmer.
India have problems of their own even when we don’t take the opposition into consideration. Shikhar Dhawan has continued to blow hot and cold throughout his career. Lokesh Rahul, who might have to wait for his chance at the top of the order, has shown a curious tendency to either get dismissed very soon or make a century. He failed in his 1st, 3rd and 5th Tests and scored a century in the 2nd and 4th matches. Sequentially, he’s due a century on his return to the action. Virat Kohli has shown a weakness outside off stump when the ball is doing a bit although has scored magnificent centuries in Australia and Sri Lanka, not to forget his almost-twin tons at Jo’burg. Rohit Sharma, for all his undoubted potential and limited-overs exploits has failed to reach three figures since his debut series against the West Indies (mentioned at the beginning) where he hit  centuries in both the matches. He has this irritating tendency to throw his wicket away just before a break, something that has hurt the team a lot on its overseas tours. The more reliable players in the test XI have been Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane. Vijay is coming back from a hamstring injury and has had match practice in the Ranji Trophy. I expect Rahane to score big after hitting centuries in England, New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka, besides a sparkling 96 at Durban. Wriddhiman Saha has earned the right to the wicketkeeper’s position and one can only hope that his excellent glovework comes in handy when standing up to the spinners. A few gutsy knocks down the order, rallying the tail around him, will be great too.

                     sharma-ashwin_jpg_1494004g
            Ishant Sharma and Ravi Ashwin will be India’s trump cards in the bowling department.
                        The spin department seems pretty good here with Ravichandran Ashwin returning from injury to lead the pack and Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra making up the support act. While Ashwin was the Man of the Series in Sri Lanka and was the only Indian bowler who looked threatening in the T20s and the first ODI against SA before he got injured, I particularly liked the way he has returned to his roots of classical off-spin. The tinkerings with bowling action have been done away with and the variations have been locked in the cupboard, being brought out only as a surprise element. He has also shifted from a containing middle- and leg-stump line to an outside the off-stump line, which has naturally paid dividends. Jadeja has come back from his shoulder injury and his recent six consecutive 5 wicket hauls in the Ranji Trophy were a world record. He seems to have got over his shoulder problems and his bowling seems to have got its zip and bite back, although a bit of caution should be advised before drawing any conclusions. The trickiest part of this spin attack is going to be Amit Mishra. He was in wonderful form in Sri Lanka but his recent arrest in Bengaluru might have a negative impact on his mindset. So he’s an unknown variable right now.
                          Perhaps the weakest link in the whole Indian lineup are going to be the fast men, especially in the first test in the ban-enforced absence of spearhead Ishant Sharma, who found a way to get himself banned just when he was in the form of his life. None of Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Varun Aaron or Umesh Yadav inspire confidence. They are either too profligate or too ineffective, or worse, both. I just hope they can cut down on the hit-me balls. If only they can create pressure, the spinners will do the rest of the job.
There has been a lot of noise from both the teams regarding the nature of the pitches. I for one, don’t see anything wrong in preparing pitches that aid the home team. Every team in the world does that and that is why Test cricket is unique, because it tests the players’ skills and temperament thoroughly, in varying conditions.
India will also have to defend a proud home record which has seen them win or draw all but three series in the last 28 years (vs South Africa in ’99-’00; vs Australia in 2004-05 and vs England in 2012-13). So it is going to be a tough ask for South Africa in that regard too. The 1999-’00 win remains South Africa’s only series win here ever. My support is for India to come out trumps, maybe 2-1 with a draw. But I’m afraid, very afraid, that South Africa will create history by becoming the only side to win two Test series in the last 20 years in India.
C’mon India, dikha do!!!!!
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