India vs South Africa, 1st Test preview: Team to beat vs team in transition
Indian Express 2 Oct 2019 07:55 AM
India's battles with South Africa have been overshadowed by those with Australia and England but the cricket has been riveting.
For all the anticipation among fans about India’s cricket rivalry with Australia, it’s against the South Africans that real cricketing sparks fly on the field. Not just adolescent sledging (there is a fair share of it, of course) or ‘brain fade’ antics that catch people’s attention, but in terms of pure cricket. It’s what made India serve up a series of brutes, devilish spin tracks rarely seen before or since, last time at home, to not just defeat South Africa but rub their noses on in the dirt. South Africa retaliated when India went there, rolling out grassy knolls and bouncy beasts.
It’s what pushed R Ashwin to sledge South Africa’s gusty opener Dean Elgar in India – “That’s a bad shot, not a bad pitch. This is not Jo’burg, can’t slog sweep here”. It’s what made Elgar get his own back in South Africa, goading his seamer to bounce at Ashwin three times in a row.
There is respect in the relationship between the two teams, a fierce competitive spirit that bubbles on the field – all wrapped up in a genial fuzzy bubble that makes the fan aloof and almost unaware of the stakes involved between the two. Australia first, and England next is the rank in fans’ minds and, for some reason, South Africa is neglected.
Not that the players share that view. This was Elgar about the last series in South Africa. “It was one of the toughest Test series we ever had in South Africa. The competitive spirit is driven by Virat, I think. He is very competitive and we can see that he is trying to change the culture there. And it seems to be working. We felt we were in a real battle out there with them. They didn’t just want to play the series but wanted to win it. That was awesome,” Elgar told this newspaper.
And yet, once again, there seems to be a lack of buzz around the current Test series that is set to unfold at Visakhapatnam. Perhaps, it’s a leftover from the last series when the pitches were venomous. For starters, this time around, such pitches are unlikely to be seen. The first one is likely to play low and though it would obviously help spinners, it’s not going to be heavily loaded in their favour.
Even though it’s a fairly young batting unit, South Africa have men who can handle what’s thrown at them. Aiden Markram has been earnestly preparing for spin for a while now, with spin-camps in India overseen by their new batting consultant Amol Muzumdar. Elgar had gone back to his father Richard after the last India tour, muttering, “I need to do something about it (playing spin)”.
The father perhaps caught his son’s struggles the best: “He was caught with his pants down. He wasn’t ready for that kind of big spinning pitches. He has now found a way,” he told this newspaper. It could be said about the team as a whole.
The no 3. Theunis de Bruyn is a young batsman who has been pretty good against spin and has done the hard yards towards prepping his game against tweakers. Faf du Plessis too believes that his game against spin has improved after the last India tour. He says he is in a better space, technically and mentally, to improve his poor performance against spinners in Asia – he has been dismissed 16 out of 19 times to spin, and averages just 22.38 from 12 Tests.
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Then there is Temba Bavuma, who though hasn’t stepped up his game to the next level as his talent suggests he should have, but can be a solid batsman. Quinton de Kock comes next, the attacking wicketkeeper-batsman whose success would depend on how he tackles Ashwin. He has had problems with the off-spinner in the past; one doesn’t have to wait long to see if he has found a way out.
South Africa plan to push Vernon Philander at No.7 instead of an extra batsman, and then play two more seamers in Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi. Dane Piedt has been coming to India for five years now and knows the speeds and lengths to bowl while their main spin weapon would be Keshav Maharaj.
India are in pursuit of their record 11th consecutive series win at home from 2012 but won’t get too cocky. There is a bit of unknown still. Would Rohit Sharma succeed as an opener? Would they handle Maharaj’s quickish left-arm spin better as in the past they have had problems with overseas spinners who pushed the ball quicker through the air in India? Would Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami be able to soak up the pressure left by the absence of their lodestar Jasprit Bumrah? Does Mayank Agarwal have the game to handle Philander’s new-ball wizardry?
Having said that, India do have a balanced team, especially when one considers they have lost Bumrah. The bowling is as good as it can get in his absence as Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja average 17.5 and 13.9 against South Africa.
The middle order looks pretty solid as two come-back-from-dead men Cheteshwar Pujara (what would have happened had he failed in Australia?) and Ajinkya Rahane (climbed out of a batting grave in West Indies) have made the brittleness disappear. Wriddhiman Saha too is a solid addition in that department, not just with his better wicketkeeping but also as a batsman who has the game to soak up pressure and adapt. He has reached a stage in his career where he can attack or defend competently as the situation demands.
It’s the openers that one isn’t sure of yet. Forget Rohit who is just starting out in that role, even Agarwal has to own that spot yet. Despite his performance in Australia on a batting beauty, there was no expectations on him then.
Now, he has seen KL Rahul dropped, M Vijay failing to hold his spot, and is the next man in the hot seat. If anyone can test him out, Philander can and will. Agarwal would have to show he knows the GPS of his off-stump and has control over his hands. Any involuntary twitch outside off and Philander will swallow him.
It should be a good series for the youngster to cement his place. Hopefully, we shall have a cracker of a series between a dominant India and a team on the rebuild but with men of talent and character to pull it off under a captain who realises that he can be known as the captain who rebuilt South Africa after the retirement of a few legends.
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