By Chetan Narula
Johannesburg: Dec 17, 2013
The thrashing in One-Day Internationals (ODI) behind them, India will be aiming to start the post-Sachin Tendulkar era in Test cricket on a positive note but the task looks daunting as they would be up against the world’s number one side South Africa in the two-match series starting on Wednesday at Johannesburg.
At the Wanderers stadium, after losing the three-ODI series 2-0, the visitors will be looking to make their first mark on the tour, in what will be a new era in the annals of Indian cricket.
For this is the first Test match for Team India following the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar. The Master Blaster bid farewell after playing his 200th Test versus West Indies in Mumbai, in what was an emotional roller-coaster for the entire nation’s cricket fans.
Since then, six ODIs have been played against the West Indies and in South Africa. The contrasting results in these two series had taken some focus off the issues emanating from Tendulkar’s retirement. Now, they need to be addressed.
The first question to be asked is who will bat at number four? The true realisation of Tendulkar’s departure will dawn when a new face comes in to bat at the fall of the second wicket during India’s first innings in this Test.
It probably will be Virat Kohli, attempting to fill in the big boots, an unenviable task surely.
It fits the context of this Test series. This is India’s first overseas Test in nearly two years, since their tour to Australia in 2011-12.
In 12 Tests at home thereafter, India won nine, lost two and drew one, winning series against New Zealand, Australia and West Indies.
Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Harbhajan Singh were side-lined owing to poor performances, giving a completely new look to the Indian team.
In this interim, Kohli has been the premier batsman for this young side for almost two seasons now. And ever since he has landed here, the Proteas have given him their undivided attention.
That India lost when he failed is, perhaps, a significant reminder of their reliance on Kohli, who has 11 hundreds in successful ODI run-chases.
It isn’t his success rate in limited-overs cricket that makes him a first-choice pick for number four in Tests.
Instead, it is his aggressive mentality and gusty demeanour that was amply displayed when faced with blinding pace and fearsome bounce in the first ODI at the Wanderers.
Riled by a Morkel delivery that hit him in the ribs, Kohli didn’t back away, and took on Steyn and company, or at least he tried to.
In the two Tests though, he will need to mix this belligerent intent with caution. It is true for all other batsmen as well.
It was their propensity to look for shots at the very beginning of their innings that led to their downfall in the ODIs.
And South Africa’s pace attack will once again look to exploit this bit with the red Kookaburra ball expected to do more than the white one. Not to mention, it is the same Wanderers’ deck that caused much pain to this young Indian batting line-up in their opening match on tour.
“There is pace and bounce in this wicket, as is the case at this ground always,” said Pethuel Buthelezi, a groundsman at Johannesburg, who has worked on the Wanderers’ pitch for a long time.
“But this is also a win-toss-bat-first wicket. If the batsmen get set they will like the bounce and 400 runs should be a good first innings’ score,” he said.
It should be music to the Indian batsmen who are looking for that one innings to restore lost confidence. They have been denied competitive cricket since the Centurion ODI, with the two-day practice game at Benoni also abandoned due to a wet outfield.
This only adds to their challenge, and the intrigue surrounding the Indian team selection. With such half-baked form of his batsmen, and in light of Tendulkar’s exit, will skipper MS Dhoni pick seven batsmen or take a risk with five bowlers?
Seven batsmen ought to be the safe bet. In either case, three pacers should be the norm, as is in South African conditions.
But a five-bowler attack will put focus on Ravichandran Ashwin. The off-spinner is now the leading all-rounder in Test cricket (as per ICC Test rankings) and his record doesn’t disprove it.
He has two Test hundreds, albeit both at home against West Indies, yet he bats with undeniable assurance in the tail-end of the batting order. It is highlighted further when the opposition too makes a mental note of such players.
“Ashwin bats well in the tail-end of their young batting line-up and it is important for us to use the new ball well, get the top-order and retain our hunger getting into their tail,” said Morne Morkel, ahead of the first Test.
With 104 wickets in 18 Tests, he could have been the attack leader as well, if not for the presence of Zaheer Khan.
The return of the 88-Test pace-veteran adds much bite to the Indian attack.
Not to mention, he has Proteas’ skipper Graeme Smith‘s number (with six dismissals in nine matches), maybe a plus point for the Indian team first up.
On the other hand, the big problem for the world’s number one ranked Test side, though, will be getting off to a quick start from the perspective of the series and not just an innings.
In their last Test series versus Pakistan, played in the UAE, they gave away an advantage losing the first Test and leaving a lot to be done in the second, which they duly won.
Even so, any slip-ups here will bring alive an old memory, from 2006, when India under Rahul Dravid did manage to beat South Africa at the Wanderers, thanks to a handy eight-wicket haul from S Sreesanth, and half-centuries from Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman.
A lot has changed since then for India but lightning does strike twice at the same place, sometimes.
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