Preview: The Battle for Pole Position – View from the Indian Camp

Posted: December 30, 2010 by The CouchExpert in India in South Africa 2010-11

Chandrasekhar Jayarama Krishnan

Chennai

15 December 2010

 

If ever there was a vital away tour for the Indian cricket team, it is this one. Having just fallen short of capitalizing on a victory to commence the series with during the last tour, India should provide a significantly sterner test to their hosts than their previous attempt.

After a few weeks of recuperation post-New Zealand tests, it might be supposed that the Indian test specialists (and those who were rested for the NZL ODI series) would feel a touch optimistic about facing a very confident South African side that would pretty much do anything to grab pole position in the ICC test rankings.

This tour will resurface a conceit, popular among many an Indian cricket pessimist, that bouncy wickets would definitely test the skill and technique of most, if not all. This brings back unpleasant memories of the sudden recall of Rahul Dravid as filler to the Indian ODI team before the ICC Champions Trophy – an incident that firmed the lack of faith among selectors about the capabilities of the newer crop of players to handle the short-pitched deliveries.

The current test outfit, however, boasts a great wealth of experience, along with a run of positive results under the guidance of Gary Kirsten over the last 18 months. The positive signs are centric around Indian victories even when the team has looked unimpressive – thanks to marathon performances from select individuals during crucial junctures of test matches.

Over the last two years, the Indian players have proved themselves to be braver than their counterparts. Most gazes will be drawn inevitably towards Virender Sehwag, who is yet to prove his prowess in conditions where he hasn’t had a record to boast since his century on debut. His aggressive opening partner, Gautam Gambhir, would want to carry his ODI form from the New Zealand series into the up-coming tests to re-ascertain why he was voted ICC batsman of the year 2009. The opening pair can easily claim to be the best to have existed since Langer and Hayden, and the South Africans are very well aware of it. Much will depend on the sort of starts provided by these two.

The Indian middle order, however, has a peculiar case to bring in to the table – three of the four players could quite possibly, and I reemphasize quite possibly, be touring South Africa for the last time in their careers. The seasoned veterans, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman, would want to use their gathered experiences over the previous tours to ensure that, along with bidding adieu to South Africa with memorable performances, the bigger objective of retaining the top spot in the ICC rankings must be met. And one can’t argue why this proposition may seem farfetched, for if there was ever a time that India can stamp its authority over the South Africans, it is this very moment.

Moving down the order, questions over a rampaging Suresh Raina, the only Indian to have scored a century in every format of the game, will receive clear-cut responses as these wickets in South Africa, hopefully, will be a far cry away from the dreary run-feasts that he has been a part of in the longer format of the game. His susceptibility to the short ball, a well documented weakness of his, is bound to be exploited by Steyn and Morkel, and how he faces up to that barrage of bouncers will be a true test of his character and technique. Probably, the fact that the likes of M Vijay and Pujara are banging the doors as hard as they can, would help him take his game to another level.

Astonishingly, Vijay hasn’t played a test since scoring his maiden hundred against Australia earlier this year. Pujara dazzled on his debut with an aggressive 72 in the second innings of the Bangalore test to seal the series against Australia. Consistent domestic performances had finally paid off for the Saurashtra batsman – it is not for no reason that he is considered to be the replacement for Rahul Dravid in the Indian setup.

With Dravid and Laxman, arguably cricket’s most renowned pair of middle-order heavyweights, approaching the fag end of their careers, the exposure provided to Vijay and Pujara will play a very key role in their developments as cricketers – especially with away tours to the West Indies, England and Australia in the calendar year to come.

Both these batsmen will be vying for a taste of the South African medicine, and the form of Suresh Raina would prove inversely proportional to their chances of making it into the playing eleven. The competition for a place in the Indian XI is at its most intense, and nothing can prove to be a better headache for the selectors than the situation they find themselves in now.

As captain, MS Dhoni knows the price that champions pay to retain their positions. The Australian avalanche of late would do well to remind him, and the selectors, as to how the transition needs to be handled over the years to come. His own form has not been the best of late, and he’d do well to remove any elements of doubts from the minds of those who have started to look at him as the Brearley of Indian cricket – captain MSD considerably outweighing batsman MSD.

In all probability, Harbhajan is likely to play the role of a lone spinner in an attack that would see three pacers – Zaheer (if fit), Ishant and Sreeshant – irking to test the bounce that these wickets have in store. The curator has been smart enough to warn in advance that if the weather continues to remain hot, the loss of moisture will make these wickets resemble any other docile wicket often criticized elsewhere. Nevertheless, to challenge the batting trio of Amla, Kallis and de Villiers, all in supreme form of late, would require a skill far superior than that of the ability to extract bounce and swing – patience.

How cleverly these bowlers and captain MSD handle the situation will prove a testimony to our ranking on the top – much along the lines of Nagpur 2008 against Australia. Sreeshant, in particular, would look to repeat his feat in Johannesburg during the last tour – possibly over all the three tests. Harbhajan, who has been in better form with the bat than the ball of late, would want to revisit his memories from 2001 and work towards branding himself as an off-spinner who can bat quite brilliantly.

As much as anything, the changing fortunes of Indian cricket will look to use this tour to trampoline their way to gather a considerable lead atop the ICC rankings. The larger picture would require the attention to turn away from Tendulkar’s personal milestone and look at winning in this unconquered territory, for if the latter happens, the former is bound to have materialized somewhere along the way.

Character has always been the critical issue and cricket, and this Indian team comes into this tour with an extra dosage of it. Umesh Yadav’s stinging bouncer at the little master during the nets a few days ago shows that the youngster feels he can win a place in the XI by showing his character. Whether that was the right way to show it or not is secondary, for he would have been public enemy number 1 had the damages been severe. But all that is being undermined is that this Indian team has the belief to equal the feats achieved by the great West Indian teams of the past through confidence, aggression and character.

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