JOHANNESBURG: Recent history seems to suggest that while India’s fast bowlers have acquitted themselves honourably on tours (read assignments outside the sub-continent) the batsmen have usually come a cropper in seaming, bouncy conditions. Which imbues the ODI leg of a young Indian team’s visit to South Africa with increased significance. Not only is the current set of batsmen relatively inexperienced and in the form of their lives, they are also expected to be the ushers of the post-Tendulkar epoch.
Heading into the first ODI at the Bull Ring, to be played on Thursday, the crosshairs are firmly trained on the big three that have shaped several series wins for India this past season. Openers Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, and Virat Kohli have helped themselves to over a thousand runs apiece in the last 12 months, and each boasts an average of above fifty. So prolific have they been that very little has been required of the batsmen that follow.
The fireworks of the top three have put in shade the lackluster performances of Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh. Both southpaws are suspect against the rising ball and will be fending off stiff competition from Ambati Rayudu and Ajinkya Rahane for their places in the eleven. Skipper Dhoni too has been in superlative form, his ability of farming the strike and shepherding the tail coming in handy on the rare occasions that the Dhawan-Rohit-Virat troika has failed.
This happy picture is one that South Africa will be striving to soil, what with intonations of a ‘grudge’ series making themselves heard after the BCCI’s less-than-admirable handling of the SACB.
The key, however, remains the same for either side: pace. How India handle Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis when the ball is zipping around will be central to the outcome. So focused have South Africa been on hosting the Indian superstars that they ‘rested’ Steyn and Kallis in the third and last ODI against Pakistan. A dispiriting loss to Misbah ul Haq's team is likely to egg them on even more as they take on the other sub-continental giants.
But the Proteas have their own demons to exorcise. They succumbed to an old frailty of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the second ODI against Pakistan and have won just one of their last eight ODIs chasing. The transition from coach Gary Kirsten to the new incumbent Russell Domingo hasn’t been seamless – as is to be expected – nor has AB de Villiers' captaincy started to make an impact yet. As much as it’s important for India to knuckle up and face the chin music, equally vital for South Africa would be to retain their calm in pressure situations – an aspect that contrasts glaringly with India’s seemingly endless chain of players who revel under duress.
India’s seam attack - even if it doesn't look downright menacing - is in safe hands. Bhuvneshwar Kumar's brand of swing is likely to prove a handful; Umesh Yadav has deadly, if sometimes inaccurate, pace; Mohammad Shami is deceptively quick; while Mohit Sharma, on limited evidence, is an exciting prospect. Ishant Sharma, the only one of the five who was part of the 2010-11 party, remains forever unpredictable. But after suffering a run-fest of a series against Australia on Indian feather-beds, the bowlers should revel in conditions markedly more helpful to their kind.
There is also a possibility of the familiar evening showers paying the Bull Ring a visit. That will only thicken the plot. And make life a little more miserable for batsmen who tend to bank more on bravado than technique. Any guesses as to who those batsmen will be?
The squads - India (from):
MS Dhoni (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammad Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Amit Mishra, Ambati Rayudu, Ajinkya Rahane; South Africa (from): AB de Villiers (capt), Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, JP Duminy, Imran Tahir, Jacques Kallis, Ryan McLaren, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Vernon Philander, Graeme Smith, Dale Steyn, Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
Match starts at 5 p.m. IST
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