In a matter of 3 days after they finished their last ODI series against West Indies, Team India are already in South Africa for what could be the sternest test yet for this young brigade led by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Series wins at home are all well and good, but as more than one former cricketer has emphasized, the success of a team is determined by how well it performs overseas. For many, like Shikhar Dhawan, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami, this is their first trip to the Rainbow Nation, while for some, like Suresh Raina, this tour is an opportunity to heal some wounds from the previous tour of South Africa.
With the ODIs beginning on Thursday, here is a look at some key battles that could shape which way the 3-match series could swing.
1. Shikhar Dhawan/Rohit Sharma vs Dale Steyn/Lonwabo Tsotsobe
Much of India’s ODI success in 2013 has revolved around solid, yet swashbuckling starts provided by Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma. While Dhawan has set the stage on fire since his comeback, 2013 has been the year where Rohit Sharma has come close to showing the world that his much talked about talent can be put into performance. For South Africa, Dale Steyn has been their lead fast bowler for a while now, and in the two recent series against Pakistan, he was ably supported by his new ball partner Lonwabo Tsotsobe, where both of them were able to nick a couple of early wickets to put the pressure on the middle order. While Steyn will try to unsettle the batsmen with pace, Tsotsobe will, as usual, rely on his control of line and length and swing, if there is any available. Steyn and Tsotsobe could set the tone for Morkel and co. to follow, or it could be Dhawan and Rohit setting the tone for Kohli and co. to follow.
2. Imran Tahir vs Indian middle order:
Tahir, in the past two months against Pakistan, has been much different than the Tahir we saw go for 0-257 of 37 overs in Adelaide last year. He absolutely flummoxed the Pakistani batsmen on more than one occasion and was a crucial weapon that Graeme Smith called upon for the must win 2nd Test match in Dubai and he was used by AB de Villiers as a wicket-taker in the ODI series that followed. Indians are regarded as the best players of spin in the world, so it will be interesting to see what tricks Tahir has up his sleeve. Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh struggled against Sunil Narine in the recently concluded ODI series against West Indies, and it is crucial as to how they approach Tahir because if the pressure is not applied, that is when Tahir will be at his most dangerous.
3. South African middle order vs Indian spinners:
South Africa’s middle order was all at sea against the guile and verve of Saeed Ajmal and Shahid Afridi. If Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja can get their radar right, they have the ability to cause all sorts of problems against batsmen who look extremely tentative while playing spin. AB de Villiers apart, none of the Protea batsmen seemed to use their feet, and very often, were caught on the crease. They had troubles reading Ajmal’s Doosra as well. While Ashwin and Jadeja don’t possess as much variety as Ajmal, they are dangerous in their own right.
4. Bhuvneshwar Kumar vs South African Top Order
If there has been one consistent bowler for India through 2013, it has been Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Bhuvi has delivered more often than not, picking up an early wicket or two. With either one or both of Quinton de Kock and Graeme Smith likely to be in the South African top order, this is an opportunity that Bhuvneshwar will relish, given how well he bowls to left handers. But, if one of the top order, which includes Hashim Amla can get stuck in, South Africa would have their sight set on a big total.
5. MS Dhoni vs AB de Villiers
While Dhoni has been widely acknowledged as one among the shrewdest thinkers in modern day cricket, India’s displays in the recent big overseas tours have left critics questioning his captaincy. While the Dhoni of now is a refreshing change from the one we saw on those disastrous tours of Australia and England, he would still want a big performance in a big series. With Dhoni and de Villiers, apart from being captain, they are arguably the best ODI batsmen in their respective teams. In the recent past, Quinton de Kock apart, de Villiers has been the only consistent Protea batsman and it is important that AB can keep his form going. Dhoni is crucial for India because he is one of the few with prior experience in South Africa. That coupled with the “Dhoni brain” makes him all important for India
So, 5 big battles and a lot more that will be fought over the 3 ODIs in Johannesburg, Durban and Centurion. The side that wins the most of these 5 battles should be in a good position to win the series.