Test

Humdinger of a series in the offing!

The wait is about to be over as the most awaited series between India and South Africa, world’s No.1 & 2 ranked Test teams currently, gets underway on Friday, 5th January at Newlands, Cape Town.

Venues

The first Test will be played at Newlands from 5th to 9th January. Sony TEN 1 and TEN 3 will broadcast live telecast of the match from 2 PM IST.

Newlands, which is nestled at the foot of Table Mountain, alongside Adelaide Oval in Australia, is reckoned one of the most beautiful grounds of the world. Over the last five years, numerous changes have been made to the ground to increase the seating capacity to 25000 by replacing the grassy embankments with pavilions.

Newlands is one of the few grounds in South Africa, which assists spin bowlers. The pitch is conducive to result and very few matches had ended in a draw. The Team India has played 4 Tests at Newlands. It lost two in 1997 and 2007 and two were drawn in 1993 and 2011. Last time Team India played here in 2011, Gambhir made 93, 63, Sachin made 146. Harbhajan took 7 wickets in the second innings, while Sreesanth took 5 wickets in the first innings.

The second Test will be played at Centurion from 13th to 17th January. One of the newer stadiums and Test venues in South Africa, it has been described by many as ‘one of the grounds with the best players’ facilities in the world’. The capacity of the ground is 22,000. The large grass embankments make it one of the ideal grounds in South Africa to watch cricket. Centurion is known for quicker pitches and is equally relished by the batsmen as the balls generally come onto the bat.

The last time Team India played here in December 2010, it lost by an innings and 25 runs. For South Africa, Amla 140, Kallis 201 and ABD scored 129, whereas for India Gambhir 80, Sehwag 63, Sachin 111* and Dhoni scored 90. The pace duo of Morkel and Steyn took 7 wickets each in both innings.

The third Test will be played from 24th to 28th January at New Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg. It is known as ‘Bullring’ because of its intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams, but the venue has a rich history.

India has played 4 Tests here. It won by 123 runs in December 2006 under Dravid’s captaincy, whereas remaining 3 Tests ended in draw.

Team India

Team India looks balanced on paper and selectors have most bases covered. If I have to find one selection anomaly, I think we missed a trick by not picking Kuldeep Yadav. He could have been the X-factor Team India would have wanted. Granted Jadeja has been India’s most successful bowler and architect of many wins, but in home conditions. I don’t think he will be effective on South African pitches which don’t afford much spin. Moreover, Jadeja doesn’t turn the ball much and rely on his accuracy and help from the pitch to make an impression, whereas the wrist spinner of Kuldeep variety can be dangerous on any surface as he can get purchase on any wicket.

All said and done, I think the team management will play six batsmen and four bowlers. These 4 bowlers should be Ashwin, Ishant, Shami and Bhuvneshwar. I would love to give Test cap to Hardik Pandya, as he brings much needed depth to our attack, is a decent bat, too, but it also means leaving out in-form Rohit Sharma. I don’t think tour think-tank would leave Rohit out despite Captain Kohli’s preference for a 5-bowler bowling attack. If it was upto me, I’d have left vice-captain Rahane for Rohit, as playing with 5 bowlers will be key to victory in South Africa.

South Africa

South Africa, on the other hand, would unleash its pace battery which is formidable even if they don’t play Steyn, as they don’t want to rush him into the rigours of the Test cricket. Morkel and Philanderer are experienced campaigner, whereas Rabada is young and fast. Besides having possessed a potent pace attack, SA have unearthed a genuine article in left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj. It will be good contest between him and fleet-footed Indian batsmen, known to play spin better than others. Elgar, Amla, Faf du Plessis, ABD, Quinton de Cock make up an impressive batting lineup.

Past weaknesses wont’ haunt Team India anymore

The past Indian teams which travelled to South Africa, suffered due to weak bowling attacks. However, this should not be the case this time around. We do have quality fast bowlers to take advantage of natural pace and bounce South African pitches would offer. All our fast bowlers are different with one another. While Ishant Sharma is the senior-most member of the attack, fairly experienced and more complete bowler now, Mohd Shami is adept in reverse swinging when the ball gets old and also bowls deceptive and sharp. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has improved by leaps and bounds and has added a few yards of pace which makes him even more lethal considering his ability to swing the ball both ways. In fact, he can swing new ball and reverse swing the old ball. Hardik Pandya can be a dark-horse and play an important role of an all-rounder for Team India, if he’s given the opportunity. He can bowl 20 overs at a decent pace and has the technique and temperament as a batsman to succeed at international level. He would lend depth to batting and much-needed penetration to Indian bowling attack.

However, for India to do well, our batters would have to fire collectively and put up a competitive total on the board to allow our bowlers to put Proteas batsmen under pressure. A decent opening stand holds the key for making a big total. It has often been noticed that whenever our openers fail our batting collapses. Therefore, it is imperative for our openers to deny Proteas fast bowlers an early wicket, blunt their pace attack so that our middle order can capitalize on a good start. I’m sure if we get a good platform to build on, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Rohit will express themselves freely. In fact, Kohli will be the key wicket for South Africa and they will go all-out against him to get him out early so as to put other Indian batters under pressure. For the Indian batsmen, the key to success will be staying positive and playing their natural game. However, they would be falling in the trap if they try to play too many shots in the beginning of the innings. During initial phase, they would do well to leave as many deliveries on off-side as they can and should open up gradually eschewing pull and hook shots but at the same time play with a positive mindset. Should our openers able to deny Proteas fast bowlers an early inroad into our middle order, it will set the match nicely and provide for a riveting contest.

Slip catching

The old adage ‘catches win matches’ holds true in Test matches especially in overseas condition. Of late, slip catching has been an area of concern for the Team India, where many chances have gone abegging due to butter fingered slip cordon. The team management is also guilty of trying new combination in every match instead of settled combination. I pray we hold onto all the chances which may come our way to complement the good work of our bowlers. Vijay, Rohit, Rahane should always stand diagonally in this order in the first, second and third slips.

Kohli holds the key

Kohli holds the key to India’s success in South Africa. Everybody knows this. South Africa know this, Team India know this. If Kohli fires and displays the same form and passion which he has displayed in home season against all comers, Team India will come up trumps. Kohli has the ability to play long innings, besides scoring runs at a fair clip. He has the ability to demoralize, pulverize any attack in the world such is his talent and self-belief in his ability. But he has to be cautious in the initial phase of his innings and should not try to play across the line, and must evade/leave bouncers. He has been bounced out quite a few times in Test matches so he would have to curb his attacking instinct and should refrain from playing hook or pull shots before he gets his eyes in. Once set, he can play his full repertoire of strokes as on fast and bouncy South African pitches balls come onto the bat nicely.

Conclusion

Making predictions is always a hazardous business with even experts proving wrong on many occasions in the past. But I’m the intrepid type who likes to gamble and wager. Though India has never won a Test series in South Africa, I’m sticking my neck out and predicting series win for Team India by 2-1. My confidence stems from the fact the talent and skills Team India possesses, with good mix of youth and experience plus bold and positive leadership of Kohli.
Good luck Team India. Go, create history in South Africa.

 

Bharat Sharma
Januaury 4, 2018

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