This is a fortress that is hard to breach. Teams from the sub-continent, over the years, have flown to South Africa with hope, only to be undone by the seam-traps in the Test matches.
In fact, no sub-continent side has won a Test series in South Africa. The skill set required to succeed in these conditions are very different from those needed at home. Even as the surfaces in other parts of the world, including those in Australia, are slowing down, the pitches in South Africa continue to be relatively lively, with lift and lateral movement.
This said, Virat Kohli and his team will not be short on confidence going into the three-Test series against South Africa, beginning on January 5 in Cape Town. After all, India has won nine successive Test series, is the World No. 1 in the longer format, and is led by a man who doesn’t quite have a negative bone in his body.
Kohli is not only a skilful bowler-devouring middle-order batsman but also a skipper hungry for Test victories. And in coach Ravi Shastri, Kohli has someone with an equally aggressive mind-set and approach. Kohli has this urge to dominate sides, impose himself on the contest both as batsman and captain. He and his men, however, face a daunting challenge in South Africa.
Click to Read: Vital Statistics: India in South Africa
In the six earlier series in South Africa, India won just two Tests while losing eight. And it was only in 2006-07 that India registered its first Test victory on South African soil, when S. Sreesanth conjured up a spell of picture-perfect swing bowling at the Wanderers.
In the same rubber, India blew a major opportunity for a series triumph when it lost its way from a winning position in Cape Town.
In 2010, India defeated South Africa by 87 runs in Durban, but the series was eventually drawn 1-1. A series triumph in the Rainbow Nation continues to elude India.
Tough as nails at home
Indeed, the South Africans are hard to beat at home. Their batsmen generally cope well with the bounce and seam movement. Their pace bowlers hunt in a pack, while catches are gobbled up in the cordon, and the pressure on the opposition is relentless.
Going into the series, the Indians would be worried about the two recent batting collapses in conditions where the ball seamed around: India’s capitulation in the first innings of the Test against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens, and then its poor total in the ODI against the same opponent in Dharamsala.
The Indians — Cheteshwar Pujara was an exception — were found wanting in technique in Kolkata. The lanky Sri Lankan seamer, Suranga Lakmal, ruthlessly exposed the chinks in the Indian batting, as the batsmen largely played away from their body with limited movement of feet.
Pujara, at No. 3, will be an asset to the Indian line-up in South Africa. Playing a tight game around the off-stump is critical to success on seaming tracks. The batsman has to be patient, be decisive in feet movement, and stroke in the ‘V’ rather than venture into extravagant drives. ‘Leaving’ the ball, blunting the attack with defence, seeing through testing spells and then cashing in when the bowling tires has often been a rewarding ploy.
Back-foot play is extremely important on these tracks since, when the ball is pitched short, the batsman needs to score off them with horizontal bat shots — the cut and the pull.
Pace is South Africa’s ace
Among the principal ploys of the South African pacemen would be to disrupt the feet movement of the Indian batsmen by mixing the short-pitched balls with the good length and fuller balls. This will have to be countered by efficient footwork. The South African fast bowlers are bound to probe the batsmen with short-pitched deliveries. After pushing the batsmen back into the crease with short-pitched deliveries, the South African pacemen could then pitch the ball up and either find edges or breach defences.
It is here that the judgement of length will be the key. Even if they are pegged back by the lifters, the Indian batsmen will need to get on to the front foot, and to the pitch of the ball if the next delivery is fuller.
The Indian batsmen will be up against what is arguably the most threatening pace combination in contemporary cricket. Kagiso Rabada is fast, furious and exciting to watch with his rhythmic, athletic run-up, explosive release and telling bursts of speed. And he has this habit of slicing through line-ups.
Beanpole Morne Morkel’s off-stump line, lift and seam movement enable him to pose searching questions to the batsmen. There should be no dearth of well-directed short-pitched bowling too from Morkel and Rabada.
Vernon Philander’s crafty two-way swing can open up batsmen. There are others such as Duanne Olivier, a slippery bowler of sharp pace. And the return of pace great Dale Steyn to competitive cricket — he spent a year on the sidelines with a stress fracture of his right shoulder — will be greeted with optimism in the South African camp. Steyn could still sting.
The South African bowling is not completely dependent on pace, though. Left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj, with his control and subtle variations, raced to his 50th Test wicket in only 12 Tests. He has offered stability to the attack, struck crucial blows.
Yet, pace remains South Africa’s strength and the importance of a good start cannot be overstated.
A partner for Vijay
The good news for India is that all its three openers, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and K. L. Rahul are in form. The Indian team management blundered by leaving Vijay out of the playing XI for the Kolkata Test against Sri Lanka. They would not do so again.
The technically well-equipped Vijay can play and ‘leave’, has made big runs in England and Australia, and is clearly the No. 1 opener for India entering the series.
Who would partner Vijay? Dhawan is left-handed, and his inclusion would mean India has a right-left pair at the crease. Dhawan’s counter-attacking style can derail attacks, make it easier for the other batsmen. It’s a risky ploy that can cut both ways.
Dhawan’s last tour of South Africa — in 2013 — was a forgettable one. He struggled against the moving ball, came under scrutiny. The left-hander could have learnt from the experience.
The smooth-stroking Rahul might offer greater stability to the line-up. He is more secure in his defence, has a wide range of strokes and skipper Kohli has immense belief in his ability.
It will be a tough call for the think-tank. There is also the possibility of the side playing all three and pushing one of them down the order so that he could be handy when the second new ball arrives. Such a move will depend on Ajinkya Rahane’s form, the faith the side has on Rohit Sharma’s batting in seaming conditions, and the kind of combination India plays. For the first Test, the side might field an extra batsman, three pacemen and a lone spinner. Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and either Umesh Yadav or Ishant Sharma could be the three pacemen with Ravichandran Ashwin being the off-spinning all-rounder. At this stage, the team management might not have sufficient confidence to play Hardik Pandya as the third paceman. He is an attacking seam-bowling all-rounder and his inclusion does save a place for the side, gives it more flexibility but a specialist batsman at this slot appears a safer bet given India’s vulnerability on seaming tracks.
India’s bowling options
Perhaps, India can play a second spinner or an extra batsman if Pandya is included, but for that to happen he needs to develop more as a pace bowler in the Test match arena.
Ashwin should edge out Ravindra Jadeja for two reasons. The greater bounce of the South African pitches should assist his kind of bowling more — Ashwin is lanky, has a high-arm action and can impart over-spin to the ball — and he is a better organised batsman down the order. However, the fact that this South African batting line-up, save Quinton de Kock, is largely right-handed might bring Jadeja — he would be able to spin the ball away — into contention.
Jasprit Bumrah, with his air-speed and the ability to take the new ball away and reverse the old, is another viable pace option for India.
In fact, this Indian pace pack will be among the best to leave the country’s shores. Shami, fast and skiddy off the pitch, Bhuvneshwar, swinging it both ways with exceptional control, Umesh, a workhorse with speed and movement, and the lanky Ishant, with his lift and deviation off the seam, form a compelling strike force. Hardik can bowl at speeds in excess of 140 kmph but has to work on his consistency. However, this pace line-up is without a left-armer who would have offered variety to the attack. He could have also created the rough for Ashwin to exploit later in the match.
Bowling the right line — on or just around the off-stump — will be critical to the Indian pace plans. And the Indian slip catching, an area of concern for the side in the home series against Sri Lanka, will need to support the pacemen. The think-tank has to identify specialists for the slip cordon; you cannot quite play the musical chairs here. Of course, apart from his exemplary ability as a wicketkeeper, Wriddhiman Saha’s combative batsmanship in the lower middle-order adds weight to the line-up.
Saha could be busy snaffling snicks with the big gloves. This Indian attack might fancy its chances against a South African line-up without the giants of the past such as Jacques Kallis or Graeme Smith.
Since 1996, this will be the first time an Indian attack will be bowling to a line-up without the solid, reliable and influential Kallis in a Test series in South Africa.
De Villiers’ return
The return of the mercurial AB de Villiers to Test cricket will be a huge relief for South Africa, and this gifted batsman has often been a thorn in the flesh of the Indian bowlers. After Smith’s departure, South Africa has struggled to find a reliable opening pair. Dean Elgar has been among the runs, but his partners keep changing. The latest among them, Aiden Markram, impressed against Bangladesh but stiffer tests await.
The wristy Hashim Amla at No. 3 is a game changer with over 8000 Test runs at just under 50.00, while skipper du Plessis is the kind of player who relishes pressure situations and changes his style. And de Kock can be a powerhouse of a batsman either down the order or if asked to open the innings to create room for de Villiers. Although Temba Bavuma has batted usefully, the retirement of Jean-Paul Duminy from Tests is a blow to South Africa since he lent balance to the line-up as a southpaw and could also bowl useful spells of off-spin.
Ironically, given its glory days of all-rounders — in a Test against Australia in the 1990s, Pat Symcox had batted at No. 11 — this South African line-up has a long tail.
The tracks where India plays its Tests in the forthcoming series — Newlands, Centurion and Wanderers — should offer assistance to the pacemen. In the Tests played at these venues over the last two seasons, the South African pacemen have blown away the New Zealand and the Sri Lankan line-ups. South Africa trounced the Kiwis by 204 runs in the Centurion Test of 2016; Steyn, Morkel and Rabada shared the spoils. Sri Lanka was outplayed by 282 runs in Newlands, 2017, Rabada and Philander doing most of the damage. And South Africa hammered Sri Lanka by an innings and 118 runs in the next Test at the Wanderers with its pacemen picking all the 20 wickets in the match.
There have been whispers that South Africa was not too keen to stage a Test in Durban this time around since the pitch there had been favouring spinners more in recent times. The host wanted to play to its strengths. Given the significance of the series, this Indian team needed to be given more space and time to get acclimatised to the conditions in South Africa. Ideally, the Indian team should have had a preparatory camp before embarking on the tour of South Africa. And they should have, in South Africa, played at least two three-day first-class matches, ahead of the first Test in Cape Town on January 5. This way all the players in the squad would have been given a feel of the tracks ahead of the series opener.
Engaged in an ODI and Twenty20 series against Sri Lanka until December 24, India lost a valuable opportunity to tune in to the Test match mind-set and approach. When the team management eventually opted out of a two-game non-first-class matches and settled for centre-wicket practice ahead of the Cape Town Test, it could not be faulted.
In fact, a pitch similar to what the Indians might encounter in South Africa, was prepared, at the request of the team management, for the Kolkata Test against Sri Lanka. And the warning signs from that Test cannot be ignored. This Indian team needs to get its act together if it has to conquer South Africa in its bastion.