Interesting series in the offing!

In any tour of the sub-continent, Test cricket is the real deal. Will South Africa be up to the challenge on their tour of India?

Dale Steyn... South Africa's strike force.   -  REUTERS

Ravichandran Ashwin could prove to be a handful for the South Africans on spinner-friendly wickets.   -  REUTERS

Murali Vijay is technically impressive and has been India’s best batsman in Tests.   -  REUTERS

In Indian conditions, Amit Mishra will be a big threat to South Africa.   -  REUTERS

Hashim Amla (right) and AB de Villiers... South Africa's key batsmen.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

In any tour of the sub-continent, Test cricket is the real deal. Will South Africa be up to the challenge on their tour of India, asks S. DINAKAR.

The pressure on the South Africans is bound to be immense. Visualise this scenario. Close-in catchers surrounding the bat, the ball hissing, turning and jumping on spinner-friendly tracks, vociferous shouts of ‘Howzzatt’ imploring the umpire to give a favourable decision, and the roar from the crowd drowning everything else.

It is a sub-continental picture where spinners will call the shots. The South Africans need to absorb the stress and find a way out of the quagmire. It will not be easy for Hashim Amla’s men in the demanding four-Test series in India.

The South Africans might find the going easier in the three-match Twenty20 internationals and the five-match ODI series preceding the Test series. The much shorter duration of these games — the deterioration of the wickets might not be on view so early — could even out many of these contests.

But then, the Twenty20 series will have its own significance in a season that will witness India hosting the World Twenty20 championship. Both sides will be keen to settle on the right combination ahead of the big event. In the context, India trying out someone like left-arm seamer Sreenath Aravind is significant. And, can old soldier Harbhajan Singh rediscover the fire?

In the ODIs, much focus will be on the hard-hitting, off-spinning all-rounder Gurkeerat Singh Mann. The Punjab cricketer has been a match-winner for India ‘A.’ This said, Ravindra Jadeja might still be in selectors’ radar.

In any tour of the sub-continent, though, Test cricket is the real deal. Will South Africa be up to the challenge?

South African cricket is passing through a difficult phase. It is a lesser side in the absence of the legendary Jacques Kallis. With his patience, loads of concentration and technical attributes, Kallis was a huge barrier for bowlers in any conditions.

He lent weight to the line-up, piloted the team safely through turbulent weather. His reading of the length was impeccable and footwork decisive.

The South Africans, in conditions that they are likely to encounter in India, will have a hole in their line-up without Kallis. His absence will increase the responsibility on Amla and AB de Villiers.

The South Africans have one more vexing problem. The side is without a settled opening combination after the departure of Graeme Smith. Now, Smith was hugely influential both as a captain and an aggressive batsman at the top of the order.

Amla, however, has the ability to get the team to rally around him. As skipper he will have to show the way to his men with the bat. He is a gifted stroke-maker with timing and poise. He plays the ball late and does so with soft hands, that is so crucial on the sub-continental tracks.

Batsmen going at the ball with hard hands often pop up catches to short-leg or silly point. It is the soft hands that kill the spin. Surefootedness, going right forward to smother the spin or well back to gauge it and come up with an appropriate response, is high on the priority list while dealing with spin. The Indians are certain to lay a spin trap. Ravichandran Ashwin and Amit Mishra combined effectively in Sri Lanka and should do so again in conditions that should favour them even more.

The South Africans will seek solidity from Amla and game-changing efforts from de Villiers in the middle-order. Light of feet and brave of heart, de Villiers is someone who can knock the spinners off their length, put the fielding side under the hammer. The sheer versatility of this exceptional shot-maker will make his duels with Ashwin and Mishra gripping.

He is a batsman who can dance down the track for those scorching drives and imposing lofted hits and then when the spinners, consequently, shorten the length, can cut or pull them with panache.

Someone who can take the match away from the opposition with at least three different shots to every delivery, de Villiers will nevertheless be posed searching questions. Ashwin’s getting the ball to turn into the right-hander appreciably these days, while Mishra spins it away at will. And then Ashwin can get the ball to straighten, while Mishra has a potent googly. Their trajectories are different too with the slower Mishra often flighting the ball more.

A slight slip by de Villiers and he could be gone. When he is in the middle, the proceedings will be on a razor’s edge.

Things might be calmer when Faf du Plessis is around, but then he could prove tough to dislodge. This South African has innings building skills, a calm head and technique. Once set, he can open out. Much like de Villiers, he has played a lot of cricket in these conditions. du Plessis will have to play a crucial role in the series, provide substance to the innings.

Then there is the left-handed Jean-Paul Duminy, a shot-maker who can rally with the lower order. Duminy’s duels with Ashwin will be of considerable interest. If Duminy combines capably with a right-hander, the Indian attack’s line could be disrupted.

How will Virat Kohli counter the threat from these South African batsmen? He will seek wickets with the new ball, particularly in the Mohali and New Delhi Tests where the winter conditions could assist pacemen early in the day, and then bring on the spinners to make inroads.

Ishant Sharma is an improved bowler with his greater consistency and off-stump line. Umesh Yadav could be handy if the conditions are dry, encouraging reverse swing. Kohli could also employ a pace-spin attack to deny the batting side rhythm and counter the right-left combinations. For the South Africans, Dale Steyn will be the lynchpin despite all the talk of this spearhead being past his best. Of course, he is not young any more at 32, but it will be a mistake to count Steyn out. The South African brings with him experience, craft and incision. He can strike with the new ball and come back into the contest with reverse swing.

If Steyn is skiddy, Morne Morkel achieves telling bounce, on almost every surface, with his height and high-arm action. It’s a pace combination that can overcome conditions. Swing bowler Vernon Philander’s effectiveness in the Indian conditions could be limited.

South Africa will also expect wickets from the much-improved Imran Tahir. The leg-spinner is bowling with greater control, mixing his leg-spin with the wrong ’uns. He will require spin support though. This could come from off-spinner Simon Harmer or, if the team balance does not permit the inclusion of an additional spinner, Duminy’s rather under-rated off-spin.

India has to sort out its batting issues. If both M. Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan recover from their fitness concerns, they should team up at the top of the order. Over the last two years, the technically impressive Vijay has been India’s best batsman in Tests.

Cheteshwar Pujara should walk in at No. 3. He brings steel to a line-up of stroke-makers and his battling century in the decisive third Test in Sri Lanka was of a high quality.

Ajinkya Rahane, so valuable to the side in the middle-order, should not be surfacing at No. 3. His mix of solidity and flair in the middle-order was among the highlights of Indian batting in Australia last season.

This suggests Rohit Sharma, who has fallen short of expectations in Tests despite a wealth of talent, has to be left out unless India goes back to the formula of four bowlers. An attacking side plays with five bowlers even if one of them is an all-rounder.

Kohli, learning the ropes as skipper, will have to take some tough decisions.

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