A dream that started four years ago at the Wanderers will come to fruition at the same venue in the New Year Test starting on Monday. There have been ups and downs along the way, but India are now one win away from winning in South Africa for the first time. And this opportunity comes after back-to-back series wins in Australia and England.
Starting from England, where India led the series 2-1 before Covid forced a postponement of the fifth Test, to Centurion, the one pattern that has emerged in India’s overseas wins is the success of their opening partnerships.
Be it at Lord’s, Oval or Centurion, India have gone on to win the Test match when there has been at least one big opening partnership. In England, it was KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma while in South Africa, it’s Mayank Agarwal and Rahul, who have given India the starts that have set the foundation.
At Centurion, the Mayank-Rahul partnership of 117 runs in the first innings was the difference maker. Compare that to the opening partnerships of South Africa in both innings (2 and 1), and you will know how significant those first three hours on Day 1 were when Mayank and Rahul batted. And the victory margin? Well, 113 runs.
What makes it even more special is the fact that the openers involved are not exactly branded Test-match specialists. All three are successful in white ball cricket and it needed extreme adaptation on their parts to produce the goods time and time again on tough pitches against a quality pace attack with a red cherry.
“You have to learn to enjoy leaving balls. Yes, smashing the ball all around the park in white-ball cricket has its own thrills, but this is something that I had to learn,” Rahul, who scored 123 and 23 to become the Man of the Match, said after the game.
Rahul, a natural stroke-player, went through a phase of extreme struggle as an opener in England in 2018, following which he was dropped from the Test team. From there, to consume 260 balls for a score of 123, speaks a lot about his perseverance. Talking about the consistency of the Indian openers in recent times, former India player WV Raman said that there has been a conscious change in their approach.
“The first thing that you’ll notice in the Indian openers from the England tour is their tendency to leave a lot of balls and play close to the body. They are curbing their natural instinct to go for the expansive drive, thus minimizing the chance of edge. And when they are getting beaten, the ball is often missing the edge as well,” Raman told TOI.
The former left-hander, who opened for India in the 1996-97 series when India lost 2-0, also felt that there is a conscious effort on the parts of the Indian openers to keep their bottom-hand loose. “It lends more flexibility to the shots and sometimes the edges, too, don’t carry. All those things have a cumulative effect,” Raman said.
The consistency of the opening partnerships by India are looking all the more prominent because there is a lack of quality openers in the teams that India have played recently abroad. While England struggled badly with the likes of Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Haseeb Hameed, Dean Elgar couldn’t deal with Jasprit Bumrah in the first innings at Centurion while Aiden Markram looked a fish out of water in both.
At the other end, the class of the Indian batsmen is taking over and there is some quality guidance, too, that is making the difference. While former coach Ravi Shastri had his own way of communicating his message, Mayank revealed how Rahul Dravid insisted on playing ugly if necessary.
“The coach said that when you are playing in South Africa, often you will not look good. But it is not about looking good, it is only about sticking to your plans, be disciplined, leave as many as possible and get the runs on the board,” Mayank, who scored 60 in the first innings, said.
It’s up to Mayank and Rahul to keep doing the dirty job with élan at Wanderers where the challenges will be more or less similar against a South African attack that will be thirsty for revenge.