Conditions will be demanding

Wasim Jaffer, who appears technically well-equipped, could be one of the successes of the tour. He has, rightly, been included in the one-day squad as well.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

India still seeks its maiden Test victory in South Africa. This is the only country where India has not won a Test so far, writes S. Dinakar.

When India registered a Test series victory in the Caribbean this season, it marked a major step forward for a country passionate about the game.

It was India's first Test series triumph against a serious opposition outside the sub-continent in 20 years. The Kapil Dev-led Indian side outplayed England 2-0 in the Old Blighty in 1986, but India, subsequently, endured a barren run.

India brushed aside a depleted Zimbabwe by a similar margin in 2005. However, the win counted for little. That Zimbabwe team was only marginally better than an average Ranji Trophy outfit.

The road to a Test series victory in South Africa for India could be much tougher. And there are bound to be tricky bends.

The Indian batting will be tested on the seaming surfaces with bounce and plenty of carry. The batsmen will also be confronting a Makhaya Ntini-led pace attack with a variety of options. Can India find the answers?

Interestingly, the present chairman of the National selection panel, Dilip Vengsarkar, was one of the chief architects of India's conquest in England 20 summers ago. And one of his Test hundreds on that tour was constructed on a viciously seaming pitch at Headingley.

Vengsarkar would know, as would coach Greg Chappell and skipper Rahul Dravid, that the Indians require to play out of their skins to register a series triumph in South Africa. India has not won a Test in South Africa in three tours.

Given that the West Indies is not the easiest of teams to defeat at home, India's achievement — a 2-1 Test series win — was creditworthy. But then the pitches in the Caribbean, lacking pace and offering inconsistent bounce, were similar to those in the sub-continent. In other words, batting did not call for major technical adjustments.

This will, surely, not be the case in South Africa. Take away skipper Rahul Dravid and maestro Sachin Tendulkar and the Indians are vulnerable in the corridor. Several Indian batsmen attempt strokes on the rise, unwisely try to hit through the line, and do not use their feet while playing deliveries on or outside the off-stump. While they could, possibly, get away with these methods in the sub-continent, they are likely to come a cropper with these tactics on the juicy tracks of South Africa.

The conditions will be demanding, and, survival not easy. Crucially, the Indian batsmen will have to be decisive in their footwork.

They need to get on to the front foot to counter Shaun Pollock's probing seam movement, and move back and hold firm when Ntini and Dale Steyn, who can be quick too, pound them with deliveries shorter than on a length. Crucially, they will have to play close to the body.

On seaming tracks with bounce, stroking in the `'V', and collecting runs with firm pushes rather than drives, is the better option. Only if the delivery is lacking in length should the horizontal bat strokes square off the wicket be attempted. The Indians' judgment on or around the off-stump, their patience, and their courage, will be put to test. When the ball flies around, the Indian batsmen will have to get their body behind the line.

The ODI and the Test series will be played in the early part of the season in South Africa when the pitches are bound to be lively. It is true that the surfaces tend to slow down as the season progresses, but India will be touring in the first half.

Much depends on the opening pair. Wasim Jaffer, who appears technically well-equipped, could be one of the successes of the tour. He has, rightly, been included in the one-day squad as well. India requires solidity and good starts. The Indian batting has lacked rhythm in the ODIs this season. Several key batsmen do seem low on confidence. Virender Sehwag needs to combine focus with flair. Suresh Raina has to improve stroke selection and concentration levels. Mohammed Kaif should dominate more. The dynamism of the injured Yuvraj Singh will be missed.

Since the five ODIs in South Africa have been scheduled ahead of the first Test, the batsmen have an opportunity to get familiar with the conditions before the three-Test series gets underway. India requires stability and continuity in its batting order. In a season leading to the World Cup, a one-day series against one of the leading contenders will be a significant one from an Indian perspective. But then, too much cannot be read into the verdict since the conditions in the Caribbean will be completely different. However, the South African experience should toughen the cricketers mentally.

From batting to bowling. The Indian pace attack, despite fluctuations in form, holds out much hope. Munaf Patel is sharp, can be fast, and swings and seams the ball. He is bowling with greater maturity, bringing about changes in pace and zeroing in on the off-stump. He could well emerge the bowler of the tour for India.

Santhakumaran Sreesanth's greatest asset is his ability to move the ball away from the right-hander. He is a zestful bowler, who cleverly alters his length, and shifts his angle with the use of the crease. He has to operate with greater consistency, though.

Despite being taken for runs by the West Indians and the Australians in the ICC Champions Trophy, Irfan Pathan bowled at a reasonable pace (about 130 kmph) and did manage to swing the ball. While his batting remains useful, his bowling could still be a threat in conditions assisting swing and seam.

And Zaheer Khan, a seamer who can sting, brings with him experience and craft. He is a senior bowler who can don the role of a guiding light for the younger crop. Zaheer may be required to bowl lengthy spells.

When he is buzzing Ajit Agarkar often hits the right length — the batsman is unsure whether to move forward or back — and can exploit the seaming conditions.

The big and strong Vikram Raj Vir Singh, if picked, could be an interesting option for India in the Test series. He hits the deck and can achieve disconcerting bounce. His skills need to be harnessed, but, even at this stage of his career, he can inflict some damage.

While the conditions should assist pace, Indian spin could still be a definite factor. The composition of the Indian attack — whether to play two spinners or not — is one of the several challenges before Dravid and coach Greg Chappell.

Kumble, who makes a welcome return to the one-day arena as well, has bowled well in South Africa in the past. He is a bowler who relishes an element of bounce in the wicket.

Kumble and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh bowl well in tandem. There is pressure on the batsmen from both ends. Invariably, one of them strikes. The South Africans are not the most accomplished players of spin. An attack comprising two pacemen, the all-round ability of Pathan, and the spin duo of Kumble and Harbhajan, could well prove the right mix for India.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni may have to cut out the flourish and tighten his batting on surfaces where the ball can be expected to jag around. Dinesh Karthik, who has a better batting technique on such pitches, could push Dhoni for the slot of the wicket-keeper-batsman if the latter falters.

Importantly, the wicket-keeper and the slip cordon will have to back the pacemen. Even half chances need to be converted. Too often in the past, the quality of the Indian slip catching has let the pacemen down.

History does not favour India in South Africa. The 1992-93 tour of South Africa brought India some significant gains — Anil Kumble's roaring comeback and the emergence of Javagal Srinath. There were also some sparkling moments for India. Praveen Amre constructed a stunning century on debut in Durban. Kapil Dev conjured a brilliant hundred under adversity in Port Elizabeth.

But then India, the first side to tour South Africa after the country returned to the international fold, was blown away in Port Elizabeth by the fast and furious Allan Donald, who finished with match-figures of 12 for 139. It was a series winning display by the pace bowling great.

India toured South Africa again in 1996-97. Pacemen Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad bowled superbly for India, and there were outstanding hundreds from Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammed Azaharuddin in Cape Town. But Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock combined to destroy India. The host triumphed 2-0 in the Test series, but India had opportunities to reduce the margin in the Johannesburg Test where Kumble was in his element. India was back again in 2001 in what was a controversy ridden tour.

Virender Sehwag signalled his arrival on the big stage with a rollicking Test debut hundred at Bloemfontein, but India was ambushed by the home pacemen. Then, match-referee Mike Denness' act of pulling up Tendulkar for "tampering with the ball" and punishing five other Indian cricketers for excessive appealing in Port Elizabeth almost brought the tour to a premature end. India, reluctantly, agreed to continue in the second Test; it also managed a creditable draw. The third match was not treated as an official one. South Africa nailed this game with plenty to spare.

India still seeks its maiden Test victory in South Africa; this is the only country where India has not won a Test so far. This, in itself, should be a motivating factor for the Indians.