Both teams well tuned

Anil Kumble and Mahendra Dhoni have sterling leadership qualities and have really inspired Team India.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

India has a 3-3 Test record against South Africa at home, with the 0-2 defeat in the 1999-00 series, which ended India’s streak at home, the most heart-breaking. But a lot has changed in both the sides since that loss, and since they last met in India in 2004-05, writes Nandita Sridhar.

Coming as it does after India’s tri-series win and before the start of the IPL, the three-match series between India and South Africa assumes significance for Test cricket. A balanced and closely-fought series would bode well for the game’s classical format.

Both teams have the momentum going for them. The Indians came off an intense and a successful period of cricket Down Under, but had barely two weeks to recover and prepare. The Proteas have had sufficient time in the sub-continent, having just toured Bangladesh, but not much has been offered to them by way of a strong challenge. The lack of recoverytime — a longstanding issue in Indian cricket — will be a factor for those who withstood the demands of the entire Australia series.

Along expected lines, South Africa has picked two left-arm spinners, Robin Peterson and Paul Harris. But the trickiest prospect for India would be facing Dale Steyn. Steyn’s pace and swing rattled the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis; but despite the intimidating pace he bowls at, the deceptive slower one is his potent weapon. Breaking Allan Donald’s South African record of the quickest to 100 wickets, Steyn was aware of the challenges that would come with bowling to arguably the world’s best batting line-up.

“I am looking forward to playing against India, especially after their successful tour of Australia. It will be interesting going to India.

The good thing is we have been playing quite a bit of cricket on the sub-continent lately in Pakistan and Bangladesh. We won both Test series, so this will be an interesting contest between two good teams,” he told AFP.

“It is going to be tough bowling to any of the batsmen, particularly under conditions that they are used to. They have plenty of depth. The key will be to work on their weaknesses and take it from there.”

The uneven bounce of the Ahmedabad wicket drew flak a decade ago, when the two teams clashed. The wickets at the three venues — Chennai, Ahmedabad and Kanpur — aren’t expected to spite the batsmen.

The quality of the Indian spin attack isn’t matched by South Africa, but the visiting spinners have some form going for them. The contentious South African selection policy continues to haunt their every team announcement. Andre Nel’s exclusion has not just robbed the tour of moments of lunacy, but also that naked — and sometimes mindless —firepower and intensity that he brings to a bowling attack.

The area where South Africa enjoys a distinct advantage is in the stability of its top-order. World record holders Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie should open for the visitors, with Herschelle Gibbs not considered for the series. India’s worries with its top-order in Australia arose from finding the right balance to suit the Australian pitches. The Indian openers do not pick themselves. As packed and star-studded as the middle-order looks, the opening slots are too malleable for the team’s good.

The bowling attack, especially the young quicks in the Indian squad, would have to adjust to bowling on home tracks after three months of utilising the more charitable pitches in Australia. The length would differ, as would the workload they’d be expected to take on. The fitness of the core bowling group will come under scrutiny. With expectations high after the Australian series, the challenge here would be sustenance.

India has a 3-3 Test record against South Africa at home, with the 0-2 defeat in the 1999-00 series, which ended India’s streak at home, the most heart-breaking. But a lot has changed in both the sides since that loss, and since they last met in India in 2004-05. The Indian team is enjoying a period of productivity, with the experience of the seniors complementing the influx of youth. As South Africa coach Mickey Arthur admitted, the team has acquired a “ruthless streak,” with skilful and inspiring leadership from Anil Kumble and M. S. Dhoni. Kumble did exceptionally well during a controversy-marred Test series, and his role would be crucial in keeping the team fresh, focussed and not distracted by the IPL.

What augurs well for the series is the good form of the South Africans as well. Two teams on the upswing (the South Africans clinched the ODI No.1 spot) should make for an interesting Test series. The wickets — expected to aid the spinners — would have to comply to produce cricket that would befit the form of the two teams, the stature of the players (two of the world’s best in Jacques Kallis and Sachin Tendulkar on either side) and help preserve the identity of Test cricket.

South Africa squad:

Graeme Smith (captain), Ashwell Prince (vice-captain), Hashim Amla, Mark Boucher, Abraham de Villiers, J. P. Duminy, Paul Harris, Jacques Kallis, Charl Langeveldt, Neil McKenzie, Morne Morkel, Makhaya Ntini, Robin Peterson and Dale Steyn.