It is almost with a sigh of relief, and I speak for the majority here, that I note that the Test-leg of the home series against New Zealand has come to a relatively successful end, with a deserved 1-0 win to the hosts. Though the series did have its moments, it was - to put it bluntly - overall an excruciating watch for a Test cricket connoisseur, with India doing just enough to clinch the outcome.
In three weeks, the focus shifts to South Africa, where the cricket is as much a test of technique buttressed by a measure of belief, of sheer mental fortitude and an intense examination of approach. In other words, it is going to be the polar opposite of the just concluded Tests against New Zealand, and how India performs against the Proteas will go a long way in dispelling doubters, me included, about whether the team really deserves its recently acquired number one tag.
In a sense, this tour of South Africa comes at the right time for the Indian Test team: a historic series win there could well be a big step towards cementing India's reputation as not just improved travelers over the past decade or so, but also that of conquerors. It is worth keeping in mind that South Africa, as evidenced by our past four or five tours to that country, have remained India's own ‘final frontier' -- or at the least, one of India's elusive frontiers.
India's previous tour in 2006 under Rahul Dravid suggested a shift of approach, with the team winning the Johannesburg Test ever so convincingly before losing the big moments in the following two Tests and coming home empty-handed. The good part is that Indian cricket has come a long way since then, with a visible alteration in the approach to Test cricket - an alteration for the better, with results to back up that perception.
However, barring that 55 minute flight from Chennai to Colombo every three months or so, coupled with that tour to New Zealand in early 2009, the Indians haven't traveled outside the sub-continent for a period of one and a half years, unless you argue - unconvincingly -- that the team's forays abroad for IPL 2 and the Champions League in 2009, count. Logically, they should not - not only are we talking of a whole different ball game, literally and figuratively, those two tournaments were scheduled on either side of the South African domestic season, and largely played on tired and not-quite-ready wickets respectively.
The upcoming Test series against the Proteas will be markedly different - the wickets will be fresh; South Africa will be coming at the Indians with all they've got, and that is a whole new challenge altogether.
The first point to consider is that you hardly get any draws in South Africa. In the last four years, since India last toured there, the home side has won 14 Tests and lost 9 of the 26 Tests played; the other three have been drawn, with two of the stalemates coming against England last year. So by and large, we can expect results in all three venues -- Centurion, Durban and Cape Town, all grounds that over the years have statistically tended to favour pace over spin.
All of this clearly adds up to a challenge for the Indian batting lineup, accustomed in recent times to playing at home or in the home-style conditions of Sri Lanka. But more crucially, it is also a big test for the Indian seam bowlers, who to be frank have in recent times looked threatening only in rare patches, interspersed with long periods when they have collectively seemed bereft of ideas and intent. The last time India toured South Africa, the pacers picked up 35 of the 52 Proteas wickets to fall, with Sreesanth leading the way with 18 wickets in 3 Tests, followed by a rejuvenated Zaheer Khan, who after his successful county stint managed 13 wickets (most notably, Zaheer turned Graeme Smith into his personal bunny). The two of them, along with Ishant Sharma, who served as their apprentice in 2006, hold the key -- and if injury doesn't come their way, the trio have the potential to bowl the match-winning spells India needs. Critically, what they will require most is a certain sense of restraint and circumspection, given that Indian bowlers in the past have tended to get carried away with the pace, bounce, swing/seam.
The key will lie in length - as full and straight as possible to give the ball an opportunity to do something. Bowl short, and the seamers are apt to play into the hands of the Proteas batsmen, who are weaned on that length. One other cautionary note relates to the reserve pacers we have picked for the tour - Jayadev Unadkut and Umesh Yadav, both riding their IPL performances and some glowing references from the likes of Wasim Akram and Dennis Lillee. That said, neither has much experience even at the first class level, and that is where bowlers like Abhimanyu Mithun and Sudeen Tyagi would have served India's cause better.
Also, India will need to go in with a three-pronged pace attack, and that will leave the spin component in the sole hands of Harbhajan Singh. Though South African wickets are not known to be spin friendly, Harbhajan can take heart from the fact that Graeme Swann, with a superb display of finger spin aided by subtle variations in flight and pace, finished with 21 wickets during England's tour last year. An added plus is that the Proteas lineup is largely comprised of left-handers, the natural prey of the off spinner.
From the batting point of view, it is a case of two in-form lineups going head to head; the differentiator is that the Proteas know their home grounds whereas the Indian lineup, as pointed out earlier, has been playing largely in sub-contintental conditions. The challenge for the Indian lineup will be making the mental adjustment to the conditions in South Africa. Sehwag's belligerence will come in handy, for he hardly factors anything and bats on regardless, but in those conditions you can't rely on just that. Rahul Dravid could pen his own swan-song in South Africa, most definitely his last tour in that country, by anchoring the innings. Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, I think, will be the absolute key in South Africa; in the case of the former, the earlier his much-awaited milestone is out of the way the better. Suresh Raina's spot today looks suspect, given that he has not built on his initial promise in Test cricket, and of course, his technical weakness outside the off-stump coupled with poor handling of the short-pitch bowling means the number six place is up for grabs. The South Africa tour could well be Cheteswar Pujara's coming out party. Dhoni and the ones below him have done quite alright against the Kiwis, but will they be able to stand up to Steyn, Morkel, Parnell and the like? The answer to that question is critical, on a tour where every run the lower order makes will ease the burden on the top half.
Playing pace with a degree of comfort will of course decide how the Indians fare in the series, but their approach against South Africa's boring spinners could equally be vital. I vividly remember how some "great" Indian batsmen chose to play Paul Harris, a spinner who was on debut and whose job description was to bowl outside leg stump. The Indians accorded Harris undue respect, and allowed him to fulfill his brief rather than put the pressure on him; avoiding a similar negative trap this time will be crucial to how the team performs.
Critically - and this comes as no surprise, considering the BCCI's cavalier attitude to scheduling - the Indians don't have a single tour game to prepare ahead of the first Test. What they do have are two natives in Gary Kirsten and Paddy Upton who know the conditions better than most. Clearly, the Indian coach is aware of the challenge - and thus Kirsten, as has been reported, is flying out in advance with a batch of the senior cricketers to set-up shop in his Cape Town-based academy, which will serve as a base for the Indian team.
I believe this is India's best opportunity to win a Test series in South Africa. A convincing series win will go a long way in India's bid to not just be the on-paper World #1, but to display some of those #1-like qualities, which includes conquering new frontiers. And with that, over to the Centurion.