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World's toughest place to bat
Ranked No. 1 in Tests, the Indian cricket team now faces the unfamiliar task of playing bully away from the subcontinent. To achieve greatness, Dhoni's men will have to succeed in South Africa - Test cricket's final frontier. Are they up to the challenge of bouncy tracks and a Dale Steyn raring to go, or has a packed calendar already dealt the first blow?
Morne Morkel is feeling lonely. Genuine quicks are modern cricket's rarest breed, and the senselessly jam-packed calendar leaves players precious time to refresh ahead of the few marquee series they look forward to. Just back from an "exercise in tedium", as Morkel terms it, on Abu Dhabi's comatose surfaces, it's time to crank up for a home series on which the spotlight will be firmly on speed, bounce and mind over matter. Morkel knows the expectations will be immense. "It's old-fashioned Test cricket, " he says, "There is no comfort zone. It's almost easier playing on flat surfaces, because expectations are low. It's tough because we're just hurtling from one event to another. More than anything else, it's the mental attributes that I'm worried about."
While it's almost easy for broadcasters to amp up the hype, things are no better on the other side of the fence. The Indians, now tagged the World No. 1 side and saddled with the onerous and unfamiliar task of playing bully away from the subcontinent, are hoping to succeed in spite of their board having given them the worst chance of living up to expectations. Coach Gary Kirsten's remark that MS Dhoni's squad cannot achieve greatness unless they win in South Africa is a pointer to the pressures. Dulled and deadened by continued domination on batting-friendly surfaces for a while now, India's batsmen are going to attempt breaching the lazily-titled "final frontier" by having "2, 000-3, 000 hits" each at Kirsten's Claremont Cricket Club Academy in Cape Town: a poor substitute for actual tour games.
Cricket's newest rivalry, then, in the true modern tradition, will hope to deliver old-world quality contests in spite of the skewed calendar. Last time around in December 2006, after India's victory in the first Test in Johannesburg - their sole success on South African soil - Greg Chappell had harped on the benefits of a stint at Potchesfroom. So while you flip channels between this India-South Africa series and that oldest skirmish, the Ashes, remember while marvelling at England's performance that they landed a month before and played four practice games.
Interestingly, Morkel is almost dismissive of the Ashes. "Most of the pitches are flat worldwide, and that makes us quicks an almost-extinct species, " he laughs. "I think South Africa remains the last great bastion of the out-and-out quick bowler, and that is why people will watch this series. This series will be better than the Ashes. It's going to be fierce. I just hope the pitches are lively, and your batsmen can do the hop-skipjump well. There's little to separate the two squads. My job will be to support Dale (Steyn) the best I can. "
There is no bravado in Morkel's words, no misplaced preseries Aussie-style "we will win 3-0 " braggadocio, and no talk of that undying cliche: home advantage. It's an indication of the respect India's experienced batting lineup now commands. South Africa's convenor of selectors Andrew Hudson might have grandly proclaimed that "India are always vulnerable to bounce balls (sic)", but a Steyn or a Morkel knows the task isn't as easy when you're taking aim at the likes of Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid or VVS Laxman.
"I have a feeling tactics and courage will be the key in this series. It's not just Indian batsmen versus the bounce, " says former South Africa coach Ray Jennings, a tough taskmaster acclaimed for chiselling mental toughness into his players, from a Graeme Smith in the national side to a Virat Kohli in the Royal Challengers. "Remember there is no Shaun Pollock, no Makhaya Ntini, and there is too much riding on Dale Steyn. The natural ability to fight it out is what will count. For Zaheer and Sreesanth, length will be crucial because overusing the short ball won't bother the South African batsmen. I think most of the Tests are going to be set up within the first two days or in the first session of the third. Any team which slips in the first few sessions will find it hard to come back. As a batsman, there is danger in overestimating the bounce and getting into a mental rut, although some of the Indian batsmen are far too experienced to repeat such mistakes. Preconceived notions don't work as well in cricket anymore, probably because the pitches are getting flatter and flatter."
The numbers aren't flattering, so it's a good thing MS Dhoni isn't a stickler for statistics. It's one of this team's strengths, cocking a snook at precedent and forging its own destiny. Arguably, both these Indian and South African squads, apart from the periodic jousting over the top spot, are enjoying the best run of success in their history, flat surfaces or not. But in South Africa there hasn't been much to go by for the Indians. A single historic win propelled by a mesmerising Sreesanth and a gutsy Sourav Ganguly on the last tour apart, there have been six losses and five draws since 1992. South Africa are formidable at home, having won 14 Tests in the past four years. But the numbers don't reveal the moments in the past when India had things in their grasp and let slip, or the crucial calls of bravado on which outcomes have hinged, like Dravid's decision to bat first in Johannesburg in spite of a damp pitch.
"It all came together very well in that Test, right from Sreesanth's dream spell to our ability to fight back, " recalls opener Wasim Jaffer, part of Dravid's squad last time, "The dressing room after that win had to be seen to be believed. It was electric, a champion feeling, the sense of achievement gave us belief. I think it is India's single-most important away victory. South African pitches are one of the toughest places to bat on for batsmen used to driving on the up on flat surfaces. Only those with impeccable technique can make the quick adjustment. When the ball is bouncing, your body weight centres on your lower back instead of the knees, and that's a big adjustment for Indian batsmen. But pitches are getting flatter and flatter all over, and our batsmen are getting better. I feel Dale Steyn is the man to watch out for, because of the sideways movement he will generate at that pace. Morkel is a bit easier because he doesn't swing the ball that much, just bangs it in. The only way to bat is to back yourself, be patient and score whenever you get an opportunity. Getting into a rut can be dangerous."
Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, specifically, have their task cut out. Before 2007, India had an average of only 32 for the first wicket, but they also didn't have a settled opening combine, having used three different pairs in 1992-93 and four in 1996-97. This time around things are more settled, but the South Africans feel this is Gambhir's first real test away from home, making him a potential weak link at the top of the order. "We will plan for Sehwag but Gambhir is the man we must get, " says Morkel. "He batted well in New Zealand last year but the pitches were flat. This time we are going to test his technique, try and open him up a bit more."
Gambhir's former Delhi teammate and one-time Test opener Aakash Chopra, though, feels the fierce competitor in Gambhir will see him through. "Bounce intimidates you, and that's why it's tough to play, " he says. "It's not a good feeling when you're defending on the front foot and the ball hits the splice of the bat instead of the middle. But bounce can be your friend too, and India must remember that because SA have a strong lineup too. The trick is to keep the demons in the mind at bay long enough to see the new ball through. Apart from Gambhir, I also feel this could be Cheteshwar Pujara's coming-out party, and an acid test for Suresh Raina. On the bowling front, Zaheer might not generate as much swing as he does with the SG ball so why is everyone ignoring the role of spin?"
Again, it's because of the numbers. Last time, spinners accounted for only 17 of the 52 wickets that fell, and there's also no Anil Kumble. Since 1992, spinners have taken only 59 of 181 wickets, that too at a poor strike rate of 94. 41. "I believe Harbhajan must get going in Centurion in the first Test since there might be some variable bounce from the third day onwards, " says Jennings. "He needs to bowl a lot of maidens too. Graeme Swann was very successful here last time, he thrived against the left-armers. India will be in trouble if Harbhajan doesn't get going because the seamers might not hit the right lengths all the time. " Morkel too feels spin will play a surprise role.
While it's good to be wary, South Africa is no place for trepidation. Assumptions will be made swiftly, and judgments passed in the blink of an eye. The aggressor in Morkel, or the gambler in Dhoni are likely to be kept busy.
FIRST CENTURY BY AN INDIAN IN SOUTH AFRICA
PRAVIN AMRE: 103 off 299 balls;Durban, 1992-93 (Pravin Amre was adjudged Man of the Match for posting a hundred on his Test debut - in South Africa's first home Test since March 1970)
INDIA IN SOUTH AFRICA, 2010-11
DEC 16-20, 2010: 1st Test (SuperSport Park, Centurion;Start of play: 2pm IST onwards)
DEC 26-30, 2010: 2nd Test (Kingsmead, Durban;1. 30pm IST onwards)
JAN DEC 2-6, 2011: 3rd Test (Newlands, Cape Town;2pm IST onwards)
JAN 9, 2011: T20 International (Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban;6pm IST onwards)
JAN 12: 1st ODI (Kingsmead, Durban;6pm IST onwards)
JAN 15: 2nd ODI (New Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg;6pm IST onwards)
JAN 18: 3rd ODI (Newlands, Cape Town;6pm IST onwards)
JAN 21: 4th ODI (St George's Park, Port Elizabeth;6pm IST onwards)
JAN 23: 5th ODI (SuperSport Park, Centurion;1. 30pm IST onwards).
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