By Bharath Ramaraj
Ever since the Indian cricket team landed on the shores of South Africa for the first time in 1992, opening batsmen have found it a herculean task to handle the pace and extra bounce of South African decks. On occasions, even cracked surfaces have made it a baptism by fire the opening batsmen. They have also had to come through the endeavour of facing up to a battery of pace bowling machinery that was intent on straddling a generation of Indian batsmen with back of a length stuff. So, it was heartening to see Murali Vijay at top of the order stand up to South Africa’s mighty fine pacers at Durban in the second Test of the series.
Even if we go back in time to 1992, both Indian openers, Ajay Jadeja and Ravi Shastri essayed mere 20s and 30s at a snail’s pace. The fearsome duo of Allan Donald and Brett Suhultz along with a battery of hit the deck pacers in Craig Mathews and Brian Macmillan made the Indian top-order batsmen hop and duck to survive. In fact, the blue-print of success was for both Donald and Schultz to pummel Indian batsmen with pace and bounce, and for rest of them to just play a game of patience. If Jadeja amassed his 99 runs with an average of 24.75 and strike rate of 32.56 then the experienced campaigner Shastri averaged a meagre 11.8 for his 59 runs at a mind boggling strike rate of 14.32. These numbers give an inkling of the kind of stranglehold South Africa had on Indian batsmen. In particular, Jadeja seemed to be all over the shop, while facing up to the fierce pace and the left armer’s angle of Schultz.
During India’s tour of South Africa in 1996-97, the openers yet again came a cropper against the likes of Donald, Shaun Pollock, Macmillan and Lance Klusener. India’s rookie opener, Vikram Rathour and WV Raman, who had some success albeit in One-Day cricket in South Africa in 1992-93 with a noteworthy century at Port Elizabeth, were opened up like a can of worms by the pacers. Rathour averaged 16.25 with 66 runs to his name. Raman accrued a tailender-esque 22 runs at an average of 5.5. Such was India’s predicament with the opening problem conundrum that they had to play Nayan Mongia, the wicket-keeper as the make-shift opener in the final Test match at Wanderers. If the Durban track proved to be lightning quick for the Indian team, then even on a slightly slowish surface at Cape Town, openers struggled to make their mark.
Since then, a few openers have reached noteworthy crusts. Gautam Gambhir showcased exemplary fortitude and equanimity to prove his detractors wrong in the 2010-11 series against South Africa. Wasim Jaffer, known for riding well on the bounce though, is the lone Indian opening batsman to have essayed a century till now and that came in 2006-07 at Cape Town. Even if we look at the statistics of India’s arch-rivals, Pakistan, openers have found life difficult on ‘Mamba’ tracks of Rainbow Nation. Only Saeed Anwar with his felicitous stroke-play soared dizzying heights with his game-changing hundred at Durban in 1997-98 season.
Opening batsmen from India and subcontinent not just have to put up with a slew of hit-the-deck pacers charging in like crazed bulls on tracks with decent pace and bounce, but a few decks like at Centurion and these days Cape Town, a opening batsman has to constantly battle with what seems like surfaces with plenty of variable bounce in it. It can be arguably said that there is nothing more satisfying for an opener from subcontinent than essaying a century in South Africa.
Yes, Murali Vijay, who came ever so close to a century at Durban, must have had a few critics, who would have jumped the gun and reckoned that his 97 came on a track that wasn’t necessarily one used to seeing in South Africa. The pitch at Kingsmead, Durban is devoid of grass and lacks the extra pace and bounce of yore. However, it would still count as a monumental achievement for someone not known to play well on the road. Actually, Vijay was also the unsung hero in the second innings of the first Test at Wanderers when he took the shine off the ball by playing with unwavering composure and poise.
It isn’t just Vijay, as from India’s perspective, runs have flowed like gigantic river from the willows of most of the batsmen. Finally, the Indian batsmen may have indeed cracked the code of playing on South African decks. The influence of Duncan Fletcher who knows inside-out of playing in South African conditions having coached Western Province to many trophies in the late 1990s can be seen glowingly in the way the batsmen have played.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)
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