x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

India inexperienced in the post-Sachin Tendulkar era

India’s youngsters are untested in overseas conditions but cannot be taken lightly by South Africa, writes Dileep Premachandran.

Cheteshwar Pujara is the only player left in the top six of India’s batting line-up that played the Newlands Test in January 2011. Punit Paranjpe / AFP
Cheteshwar Pujara is the only player left in the top six of India’s batting line-up that played the Newlands Test in January 2011. Punit Paranjpe / AFP

The last time Indian cricket did not have an individual named Sachin Tendulkar at its heart, South Africa were not even playing international cricket.

Banned as a result of the government’s apartheid policy after the series against Australia in 1969/70, an entire generation of South Africa players – a golden one, at that – had to take out their frustrations in domestic cricket and in similar competitions in England and Australia.

In 1989, when Tendulkar made his debut at age 16, the English county championship had quite a South African influence.

The leading run-scorer was Jimmy Cook, part of the Transvaal “Mean Machine” that would probably have beaten most international sides of the time. The highest wicket-taker was Franklyn Stephenson, a Barbadian whose dreams of playing for West Indies had been more or less ended by his participation in the rebel tours to South Africa. A certain Allan Donald was the most-feared bowler in the competition, with his 86 wickets costing just 16.25 apiece.

Given how vociferously India and Pakistan voiced their opposition to apartheid, it was no surprise that they were at the forefront when it came to welcoming South Africa back into the fold after Nelson Mandela walked to freedom in 1990. Less than two years later, they were playing their first post-isolation international in front of 100,000 at Eden Gardens in Kolkata.

A few months later, a team of largely unknown talents went as far as the World Cup semi-final, losing to England only after a much-criticised rain rule came into effect.

Off the field, the India-South Africa relationship has taken quite a buffeting in recent months, especially once Cricket South Africa appointed Haroon Lorgat as its chief executive. The tour that starts later this week will last a month. The original itinerary that South Africa had proposed spanned two.

With Newlands in Cape Town not even getting a one-day international, emotions will be running high as India touch down in Johannesburg on Monday morning.

South Africa’s recent ODI form has been patchy, while India’s has been brilliant and those three matches are likely to be closely contested. In the Test arena, South Africa are undisputed No 1s and must start as prohibitive favourites. This new-look Indian side will not be intimidated though, and in Zaheer Khan, they have picked the perfect mentor for a young group of pace bowlers.

With Tendulkar gone, only Cheteshwar Pujara remains of the top six that played the Newlands Test in January 2011. Both Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay, who have excelled at the top of the order in home conditions, are untested away from home. To a large extent, the same is true of Pujara and Virat Kohli. After that, India will face tough decisions.

Rohit Sharma, who started his Test career with two centuries, is a certainty, but instead of Ajinkya Rahane, his Mumbai teammate, it could well be MS Dhoni that bats at No 6. That way, the team will be able to accommodate both R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the XI, alongside three pace bowlers.

It is not a lower middle order that will intimidate South Africa. But Ashwin has two Test hundreds, while Jadeja has three triples in first-class cricket. It is very much a horses-for-courses Test side, and one that South Africa would do well not to underestimate.