To Australia with hope

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST


SOUTH AFRICA is on the threshold of another brush with the top team in the world, Australia. Can Shaun Pollock's team pull off what has so far remained only in the realms of dreams for the veld nation? The Proteas supporters think that 'Polly's' team has the guts and gumption and man-for-man skills to fight the Aussies and return home as brave warriors for the second part of the battle that will be waged in South Africa.

There is a genuine basis to this refreshing feeling among the South Africans that the baggy greens can be beaten. They want to get rid of the tag, 'a team of chokers', a reference to the South African team's inability to win crucial matches in many limited-over tournaments, including two World Cup matches in Pakistan and England.

No one is more keen for a run-in with Steve Waugh's Aussies than fast bowler Allan Donald, who was not rushed through for the series against India, but preserved for the home and away engagements against Australia. But even without Donald and Mfuneko Ngam, South Africa was able to assemble a team that outclassed India in the short series, though the third match was reduced in status to a first class game as a result of India's decision not to take the field in the event of Mike Denness staying on as Match Referee.

Significant in South Africa's successful start to the season was the policy of picking only the 11 best players at a point of time, and not 15 or 16 as is the usual case. South Africa's selectors were confident that a team of fast bowlers would harry India. Apart from Pollock, they picked Mornantau Hayward - who has now struck and injured four Indian players in Mohammad Azharuddin, Nayan Mongia, Sourav Ganguly and Javagal Srinath - and Makhaya Ntini as their specialist bowlers and a very efficient back-up seam attack in Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener.

Next, the South Africans turned their attention to the pitches to maximise the wicket-taking potential of their pacemen. The preparation of the pitch at the Goodyear Park, Bloemfontein, was a classic example of how the officials went about the job of aiding Pollock and Co.

Having been a part of Free State's bowling attack, curator Nico Pretorious and South Africa's bowling coach Corrie van Zyl had an excellent understanding, the result of which was a bouncy track in Bloemfontein. Pollock then went on to capture 10 wickets for the first time in 59 Test matches. Pollock continued to be the linchpin of the South Africa bowling, which forced the local media to question the selectors (in Port Elizabeth) about the policy of continuing with the other fast bowler, Hayward. He has earned a nickname, "Wayward Hayward", because he has rarely been able to bowl a spell maintaining a good line and length.

Anyway, the attack put together by South Africa was more than a handful for the Indians who fell like a pack of cards in the second innings of the first Test in Bloemfontein and the first innings of the second Test in Port Elizabeth. The circumstances that reduced the third Test to a first class game made things difficult for the players to motivate themselves, but the South African bowlers, especially Ntini and Kallis, demonstrated their skill in the course of the second innings and the Indians were bowled out for 261 to lose the match by an innings and 73 runs.

Another factor that contributed to South Africa's successful run was the fabulous batting of Herschelle Gibbs (declared Man of the Series). Gibbs scored two centuries, the second one being 196, that in many ways exposed the bowling limitations of the Indians. The openers, except in the second Test, gave South Africa a great start on which the other batsmen consolidated. India's coach John Wright even referred to the two small knocks played by Boeta Dippenaar in Port Elizabeth. Dippenaar was dismissed before he entered the 30s, but he occupied the crease for such a long time that he prevented his side from losing wickets in a clutch.

Then there were Lance Klusener and Mark Boucher to turn the tide with the bat. Klusener's aggressive knock in Bloemfontein was a fine effort; as was Boucher's in the first innings in Port Elizabeth. South Africa's much respected depth showed itself in Centurion with Kallis making a conventional hundred, as against Pollock's swashbuckling effort.

There were no question marks against South Africa's fielding in which Kallis (in the slip cordon) and Gibbs (point) were shining examples. As South Africa's former wicketkeeper Dave Richardson said: "There is not much of a difference between the teams in batting and perhaps even bowling. But it's certainly there in fielding. Our fielders are able to put pressure on your batsmen."

After a blank winter, South Africa prepared for the home series winning one-sided contests against Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe. At home they did many things right. Their openers gave them the runs and their opening bowlers provided quick breakthroughs and as a team they used the home conditions very well.

The causes for India's spineless showing can be attributed to many reasons, notably on not being able to get the right bowling combination for the Test matches in Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth. But going back to the start of the series, a point that has to be stressed is that India might have actually given South Africa a scare. It would not have been a comforting thought to a captain (in this case Pollock) and the players to bat after the opposition had made nearly 400 runs. India made 379 with Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag making the most of the open spaces as a result of an attacking field set by Pollock. This was also India's highest first innings score in the 15 Test matches prior to that on foreign soil.

That India did not make many runs on the second morning of the first Test was another matter altogether and this was highlighted by Ganguly. But coach Wright felt that the Indian bowling just about did not match the splendid batting displays by Tendulkar and Sehwag, both of whom scored centuries and put on a record partnership for the fifth wicket against South Africa. The failure of the bowlers - especially Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra - raised the pertinent question of whether the tour selectors were right in fielding both Khan and Nehra, both of them coming back from injuries, straightaway in a Test match.

It was a major faux pas that put India on the backfoot after the second day of the first Test. Javagal Srinath was always going to be an automatic choice, but it could not have been the case with Khan and Nehra. The Baroda seamer got the captain's nod only because he had been responsible for winning a match for India in Sri Lanka. Nehra was regarded as the 'find of the tour' in Zimbabwe. The moment Khan and Nehra arrived in South Africa, the tour selectors shut their eyes on Venkatesh Prasad and Ajit Agarkar, both of whom had already got used to the conditions.

An infection which afflicted Harbhajan Singh two days before the first Test proved to be a setback. His place was taken by Khan, when it should have gone to either Prasad or Agarkar. Khan and Nehra were short on match experience. They conceded over 200 runs in South Africa's first innings.

After the first Test, it was reverse thinking that did the damage. The tour selectors dropped both Khan and Nehra on a pitch that was predicted to afford assistance to the seam bowlers. For three weeks and more Agarkar had not played a match and this was evident in South Africa's first innings, though he bowled a genuine wicket-taking delivery to Dippenaar. In the second he showed vast improvement and even dismissed Gibbs cheaply. In the third match that became a five-day first class game, Prasad was included, when the pitch was ideal for some one like Agarkar. So it was a clear case of selection bloomers.

It was also a tour that Anil Kumble would like to forget. This was his first Test series in 18 months after he had recovered from a shoulder injury. He struggled and appeared to be extremely frustrated when appeals were turned down. That he was close to being dropped from the team, both in Port Elizabeth and Centurion, said a lot about where he lies in Ganguly's estimation.

Perhaps, as Wright believes, things might have been different had the bowlers managed to stifle the South African batsmen in the first Test. Pollock and South Africa believed they were let off. Quite often Pollock made it a point to praise his colleagues for making a spirited fightback after conceding 379 runs. It was an opportunity that the Indians lost to turn the heat on the home team. A positive result here would have worked wonders.

The Indians also spent a lot of time in finding a partner for Shiv Sundar Das, who surely has come to stay. Five years ago, India had three sets of openers for the three Tests; it was the same this time, too. But it must be said that in normal circumstances, Das might have opened with Deep Dasgupta, who responded well to the situation caused by the absence of Sameer Dighe, who had to return because of a back problem. Dasgupta sent a message that he could be counted as a batsman. He seems to have a good defence and is willing to improve.

At the start of the series, Ganguly said that India's fortunes would largely depend on the success of its batsmen. They somehow managed to put up a fighting total in the first Test. But otherwise the batsmen did nothing of note against the South African fast bowlers. India saved the second Test only because many hours were lost to rain and also because of a big stand between Dravid and Dasgupta.

Off the field, the relations between the Match Referee Mike Denness and the Indians reached a low when the former slapped sanctions on six Indian players, including Sachin Tendulkar. The star Indian batsman was accused of trying to change the condition of the ball. Sehwag was suspended for one Test and it must have hurt Sehwag more than someone like Tendulkar who after a blemishless international career spanning 12 years, would have taken the unpleasant incident in his stride. But it was another disappointing tour, its third in 10 years, to South Africa by an Indian team.

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