For a nation with long memories of seeing its batsmen bulldozed by quality pace when playing abroad, the image of Sachin Tendulkar‘s defences being pierced by an Allan Donald scorcher in the Boxing Day Test at Kingsmead, Durban in 1996, after the batsman had hit him for two crunching fours through cover and point, still hurts.
India had been blown away inside three days for 100 and 66 in the two innings they had played. Venkatesh Prasad’s brilliant 10-wicket match haul was a footnote.
“Forget the Rhino, save India”, screamed a banner in the hands of a passionate Protea in the stands.
As Indian fans though, we are good at finding antidotes to painful defeats. In that, the two deliveries stand out as a counter to Donald’s dominance.
Back to Kingsmead. Boxing Day Test then. The second of the series in 2010-2011. South Africa, chasing 303 for victory, were going steady at 123 for 3, with a partnership building between Ashwell Prince and Jacques Kallis. Enter S Sreesanth. Maverick and magician. He produced a delivery that snorted from a length and saw Kallis metamorphose into a high-jumper to fend it off. The ball ballooned off his gloves to Virender Sehwag at point. The hosts collapsed and India levelled the series.
Cut to 2018 Johannesburg, the third Test between India and South Africa. The number of times both the team physios made the trip to the middle to check on the batsman’s well-being nearly outnumbered the people in the stands.
The pitch was rated 2 out of 100 by West Indies great Michael Holding and was called “shit” in commentary. Holding implored the umpires to call the game off.
India were having none of it. Between Lord’s 2014 till Wanderer’s 2018, they had won Tests only in Asia and West Indies. They were thirsty for “blood”. Jasprit Bumrah pinged South African opener Dean Elgar (who carried his bat in the second innings for a heroic 86) on the helmet. The left-hander was in a daze. That delivery did the job of spooking the South African dressing room. From 124/2, chasing 241, South Africa collapse to 177 all out with Mohammed Shami bowling an insane spell of 5-28. Kohli’s Team India had just grown a spine.
In a way that Johannesburg Test in 2018, which India won by 63 runs, was the benchmark for the way Kohli and Shastri wanted to play overseas. In that series, they were in good positions in Cape Town and Centurion to win, but faltered during key moments, like they did later in England in 2018.
They perhaps attacked a bit too much, instead of holding on to gains and playing attritional cricket, thereby leaking runs.
South Africa has always been a tough place to tour for Indians. The pace and bounce is like Australia. But unlike Australia, they don’t attack all the time.
They wear you down with attrition, and then after you have flagged sufficiently, they go for the kill.
Many feel the Indian team currently touring South Africa has the best chance of conquering the Final Frontier. South Africa is one place India haven’t won a series in. They came close in 2010-2011 when they drew 1-1 and were in a winning position in Cape Town in the third Test, but MS Dhoni’s unimaginative captaincy allowed the hosts to get away.
No Indian skipper has invested in pace and aggression as much as Kohli has. From that Johannesburg Test in 2018, South Africa have the following personnel missing – Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel.
India still have the core of the team that competed in 2018 intact and despite an underperforming middle-order, have the bowling arsenal to not just penetrate, but frustrate and do a good holding job.
When the ball stops swinging, Indian bowlers have the mind-set to bowl stump to stump with two mid-wickets, a square leg, just two slips, and a ring field on the off-side and wait for the breakthrough and then, go for the jugular.
Apart from Omicron, South Africa has been ravaged by racism scandals and exodus of quality cricketers taking up Kolpak deals in search for a better life in the UK or New Zealand.
Cricketers of the stature of Sunil Gavaskar, Zaheer Khan, Dinesh Karthik and Harbhajan Singh feel that this is India’s best chance to win in South Africa.
South Africa skipper Elgar though has fired the first warning shot. “I’d rather be in our dressing room than India’s, knowing that they have to face our bowlers.”
Over to Kohli for a retort.