Chennai ODI Preview: Must-win game for India

India hold advantage on a track that, as Steyn reiterates, ‘is not a fast bowlers’ paradise,’ and with forced changes that depletes the South African side.

Team India Director Ravi Shastri with skipper MS Dhoni during practice session at M.A. Chidambaram on Wednesday.   -  V. GANESAN

In a tour said to be influenced by the quality of generating and playing spin bowling, it has been quality fast bowling, a perennial source of strength for the South Africa, that has given them a slight edge over India in the ongoing One-Day International series. The Morkel brothers, Morne and Albie, have conjured match-winning efforts with the ball in two limited-overs’ matches in the tour, and Kagiso Rabada has impressed with his pace and a mature disposition under pressure that helped him take South Africa past the finish line in the ODI series opener in Kanpur.

Leg-spinner Imran Tahir, touted as a threat ahead of his team’s arrival on Indian shores, has served as a handy support act by consistently taking wickets. Morne leads the wickets tally, with seven wickets in the three ODIs so far, and Tahir appears next with five wickets at an economy rate of five.

The challenge of sub-continental wickets sufficiently dealt with, with three fast bowlers, a main spinner and his part-time understudy, the visitors should be strong having all their bases covered. There are, on the contrary, setbacks: JP Duminy, the handy fifth bowler alongside Farhaan Behardein, is ruled out of the rest of the ODI series with a cut on the hand, and Morne is not a certainty for the upcoming fixture, owing to quad strain.

Dean Elgar, Duminy’s replacement in the squad, bowls left-arm spin and is a handy batsman. He is a regular in the Test team, and participated as captain of the ‘A’ team that played a tri-series in Chennai in August. But his inclusion in the side is doubtful as he arrived in India only on Wednesday morning and may not be pushed to play too soon.

Morne was seen be to be gingerly bowling in one of the practice pitches at the Chepauk stadium, but it is not clear if he can bowl at full tilt. Even if he can bowl, he may not last the entire length of an ODI.

The other factor in the upcoming fixture will be heat. Chennai is known to induce fatigue and cramps, a fact a number of upcoming South African cricketers were introduced to when they played for the ‘A’ team under Elgar. Quinton de Kock, who was sent to India to regain form after a slump, scored back-to-back centuries on that tour, the first of which had him cramping and leaving the field in India A’s chase. A number of players suffered in the heat, and exacerbated their condition with food poisoning.

However, Dale Steyn was nonchalant about the challenge. “I don’t think it’s a setback. We’ve already been in India for two weeks where it’s been pretty hot, already. A couple of us have played here before, for South Africa, and many of the guys have played here before in IPL teams when they have toured India, so, the heat’s not a big factor. The last couple of cities that we’ve been to have been pretty warm, and we’ve been to some hot countries in the past. Bangladesh is pretty warm, Sri Lanka is a really hot place, West Indies is warm, so it’s no different for us.”

Moreover, the pacer said his fast bowling unit profited from the hot, sultry conditions. “Pace on the ball makes it really tough, especially, as soon as it gets very hot in the 25th to 30th over, the balls get very soft and wicket starts to crumble up a bit, it’s really difficult to get the quicker bowlers away. Guys that bowl at around 135 or 130 kph, are slightly easier to face. Pace is the main weapon, even if the wickets are slow.”

Nonetheless, who will be the ones to facilitate it, in Chennai? If Morne is absent, the team management may go in for fast-bowling all-rounder Chris Morris, whose familiarity with the venue — as he has played for the Chennai Super Kings — will be an advantage, and Aaron Phangiso, as the second spinner. That will mean a sacrifice of the cushion of a handy No. 7.

India, on the other hand, will be expected to arrive for the contest with the same team. The bowling has a settled look. Three spinners, in conditions encouraging spin, are likely to be supported by two seamers in Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohit Sharma.

The batting order, however, didn’t look settled in the previous ODI in Rajkot, and India will need to have Ajinkya Rahane in the top three, so he can feel at home and succeed. Batting at an unfamiliar No. 6, he was tamely dismissed at a crucial juncture, following which India failed to generate finishing touches to their chase. A corollary of his shift in position was Virat Kohli’s return to his No.3 spot that seemed to facilitate his return to form (he scored a half-century).

There is little to suggest he is not as effective at No. 4. Although he has played fewer ODIs at that spot, 40 out of 164 ODIs, he averages 58.13. Whereas, Rahane is a fish out of water in the lower middle order. He has played in the top order for almost his entire career. Dhoni has expressed his keenness to shepherd a permanent finisher of his pedigree, so he can bat higher in the order, but such shuffling is likely to be counter-productive.

His innings of 92 in Indore was a recovery act of a high order. On the whole, however, India’s batting in the death overs, has struggled. In Kanpur, they obtained 80 runs in the last 10 overs to fall short of their target by five runs, while South Africa had plundered 109 runs. In Rajkot, they scored 67 runs in the same overs, falling short of their target again.

Steyn summed it up thus: “Teams can’t just run away with it any more, from the 40th to the 50th over. You have to think new. You have to think extraordinary shots, like AB, who can play those laps and scoops. When you bring third man up you can bring the ball through third man and manipulate the field.”

But on a track that, as Steyn put it, ‘is not a fast bowlers’ paradise,’ and with forced changes that depletes the South African side, India will hold the advantage.

Squads:

India: MS Dhoni (captain), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Axar Patel, Harbhajan Singh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Amit Mishra, Mohit Sharma, Sreenath Aravind, Gurkeerat Singh Mann, Stuart Binny, Ambati Rayudu.

South Africa: AB de Villiers(captain), Quinton de Kock, David Miller, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, Farhaan Behardien, Khaya Zondo, Chris Morris, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Imran Tahir, Kyle Abbott, Aaron Phangiso, Dean Elgar.