Forget what happens in the T20 and ODI series. Forget the media outrage and expert comments, dozens of columns and news shows focusing on how one team has lost the plot. MS Dhoni’s role is limited; he will exit affairs a month from now, at the eve of the Test Series.
The responsibility – whether heavier or lighter, depending on how the team fares in their favorite ODI format – will be squarely on Virat Kohli’s shoulders. He has already led his team to a come-from-behind 1-2 series victory in Sri Lanka, but he also knows that this South African team has been the best test squad (especially traveling) in the world for years now.
However, it’s not only about beating them; it’s first about being competent and putting up a fight. Usually, home pitches bring out the best in our boys. Let’s take a look at why a young team India could come up short against the best test team in world cricket:
1. The Length
This is the first time, for as long as I can remember, that South Africa will be playing four (instead of the usual two) tests on a tour in India. Often, just when the teams are getting warmed up after two erratic performances, the series is over. More often than not, the two teams have drawn the two-match series in India. Series of this length (two) should be banned and made a criminal offence; and the four-match series will be perfect for both teams to prove their endurance, skill and ability over a longer period of time. It also gives South Africa the chance to extend their dominance over 20 days of cricket (hopefully 20, could be 18, 16 or even 11, considering how tests go lately). And with the number of draws lessening lately with every team going all T20 in tests, and result-oriented games increasing, we could be in for an exciting season, and perhaps a lesson in how to last a 72-day tour.
2. The Venues
In 2009, when South Africa toured India for the 2-match test series and the ODI series (where Sachin Tendulkar scored 200*), they thrashed India in Nagpur in the first test by an innings. India hit back at Eden Gardens after that, but it’s the Jamtha pitch that seems to have brought out the best in the Proteas’ batsmen. India will remember that, because their third test here is in Nagpur – after Mohali and Bangalore. Dale Steyn will probably be licking his lips to bowl at Mohali, while AB and co. will be raring to go on the flat Bangalore pitch. Hopefully, by the time the two teams reach Nagpur, the series will still be on the line. Only the last match at the Kotla in Delhi favors the Indians – what with their spin-heavy bowling attack and plenty of experience on those crumbling pitches. But remember, JP Duminy, the captain of the Delhi Daredevils, will probably be in the team.
3. Hashim Amla
The current captain of the test team scored 253* in Nagpur in 2009, followed by 114 and 127* at Kolkata. Needless to say, the run machine is still piling up the runs, because 2009 was one of his early years in cricket. He made a late debut of sorts, and has never looked back. The elegant right-handed batsman will be all the more determined after failing in the World Cup, and considers India to be one of his favorite destinations – to score runs. Indian bowlers will be afraid…very, very afraid. Also, if they get through him, there’s Faf du Plessis, then there’s AB de Villiers and even JP Duminy. There’s just no end.
4. Dale Steyn
Flat, dry subcontinental pitches are where Steyn separates himself from the other ‘best bowlers in world cricket’. Even Mitchell Johnson struggles in India, but Steyn takes up the challenge and proves that top-class bowlers need not worry about the pitches and conditions if they land the ball at the right spot. Steyn seems to know the strengths and weaknesses of the Indian batters, and will combine with tall, quick Morne Morkel – both of who will perhaps be playing their last tour in India.
5. Cheteshwar Pujara
Now, more than ever, the Indian test team needs someone stable in the top order. Murali Vijay can’t do it all by himself, and because he doesn’t play too much cricket between tests, Kohli and co. must turn to their test specialist Pujara – who won them the series in the final test in Sri Lanka after a long stint away from the team. For this, they must accommodate him at number 3, and drop Ajinkya Rahane back down to number 5, and drop Rohit Sharma from the test side. Rohit was the second highest scorer in Lanka with a couple of fifties, but his temperament seems to let him down just when he’s set for a big one. He fails to convert his 30s, and that won’t do against the South Africans. He is yet to play a defining test innings, and his two debut centuries against a weak West Indies line-up in Sachin’s farewell series aside, he has done precious little to warrant a place in the test side. It’s unfortunate that all his failures have come abroad because India didn’t play at home for more than a year, but Rahane succeeded where he failed, and the management will do well to accommodate Rahane and Pujara in the same batting line-up. Nobody except them will be able to deal with the quicks on a more consistent basis. They will be the difference between a hard-fought draw and a sapping loss.
In Nagpur 2009, Rohit Sharma was supposed to make his test debut in the match before he sprained his ankle in practice. Wriddhiman Saha, our current wicketkeeper, made his debut instead as a batsman – a decision that was desperate and costly – and Rohit didn’t get a chance till 2013 after that. He will want to prove himself here, but he may not get that chance.