As the Test series nears, Steyn looms large!

Dale Steyn is the most feared of the South African pacemen and his record in India is really good.-AP

Interestingly, the Tests scheduled largely in November with just the last one in December, will run parallel to the onset of winter and such climes will help the South African pace trio of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander to steam in with more fire and less sweat, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

The verbal build-up to the India-South Africa series featuring three Twenty20s, five ODIs and four Tests, has been rather mute. Rival players have expressed mutual respect and a desire to compete but there has been an absence of strong words and taunts that often form the base for Ashes preludes.

Sachin Tendulkar then lent a twist, mentioning that the Indians better watch out for leg-spinner Imran Tahir. Tendulkar’s opinions aren’t without basis and though public memory is short, it would be prudent to recall how England spinners Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar hoodwinked M. S. Dhoni’s men in their own dusty backyard a few seasons ago!

Yet, the overwhelming theme — whenever a team beyond the sub-continent clears immigration at the Mumbai airport — is often centred on whether the visitors’ pace attack will either subjugate the Indian batsmen or will be effectively countered by Virat Kohli and gang in this instance. This template of expectations has been repeated so much that it has become a natural reflex while dwelling upon an imminent series and the cliché gains further strength as Dale Steyn remains the South African spearhead while Kohli and the rest make up India’s talented response personnel.

As you read this, the T20s would be over and South Africa have already made a headstart and wrested the first clash in Dharamshala.

The ODI series will commence at Kanpur’s Green Park on October 11 and wind up with the last one in Mumbai on October 25. The shorter formats with their batsman-friendly rules often choke whatever advantages that visiting bowlers might have, be it in terms of class, speed or sheer ability.

Plus there are so many memories of Steyn being caned in the Indian Premier League, ironically by his own fellow Protean AB de Villiers donning a Royal Challengers Bangalore jersey and it is but inevitable that the fear factor around the fast bowler in limited overs cricket is on the wane. But make him wear his Test whites and unleash him on the greens and you get an entirely different picture. In that sense, the real contest will be revealed only during the Tests in Mohali, Bangalore, Nagpur and Delhi.

A cursory glance at statistical history reveals that in Tests played against each other in India, the host and South Africa are on an equal footing. From 12 games, India and South Africa have won an identical five each. In ODIs the numbers get skewed in favour of India (13 wins from 23 clashes). In the blue shade, the Indians know that there is only so much a Steyn or a Morne Morkel can bowl but there is no such leeway in Tests.

Hashim Amla can also turn to leg-spinner Imran Tahir for wickets.-AP

Interestingly, the Tests scheduled largely in November with just the concluding match in December, will run parallel to the onset of winter and such temperate climes will help the South African trio of Steyn, Morkel and Vernon Philander to steam in with more fire and less sweat.

Currently Steyn has the highest tally for a South African bowler in Indian conditions — 26 Test wickets from five matches.

There is no mistaking the bouquet of skill sets that Steyn (fast and furious), Morkel (sharp and skiddy) and Philander (swing and shock) bring to the Proteas’ arsenal. Countering them first up would be India’s openers Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan (with K. L. Rahul waiting in the wings). Vijay’s zen-like countenance and his pleasure-seeking sojourns by just leaving the delivery, has worked well for him over the last year and he will have to set that obdurate and effective tone as Dhawan or Rahul have oscillated in their performance graph — a 100 or a meagre score.

Another aspect that might help Hashim Amla’s men is the ambiguity that surrounds the Indian middle-order. Amla’s counterpart Kohli’s spot is well defined but there is a merry-go-round between Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. All three are talented but it is only Rahane, who has married ability with consistency, while Pujara did embellish his comeback in Sri Lanka with a ton. It remains to be seen if Kohli and team director Ravi Shastri will still plump for Rohit’s flair at number three instead of Pujara’s solidity.

Given their past utterances, the duo might well opt for Rohit and if that does happen, it is a huge opportunity for the Mumbaikar to rebuild his Test career from scratch. In the blue apparel, Rohit is a different personality (as evident in his ton in Dharamshala) but in Tests, he needs to reiterate his credentials against stronger opposition.

It may be recalled that when the Indians last toured South Africa, Kohli and Rahane made their marks and though the series was lost, the way a transitional team competed was incredible. Nearly two years after that, India are a more settled team and if Rohit can fit in as well, then the national squad will be better served.

The key for India is to reflect the solidity that past masters like Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid displayed before their twilight years. As always the captain has to set the tone and if Kohli can negate Steyn and company, it will breed belief within the dressing room. Kohli along with Vijay, will be critical to deflate the fiery South African attack.

But it will be good too if the Indians remember Tendulkar’s caution. Focussing excessively on countering the speedsters and lapsing into complacence against Tahir will be counter-productive. For now, the series will be determined by whether Steyn can make early incisions or not.