x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

India’s tour of South Africa: The jury may still be out in Johannesburg

Anand Vasu is unsure how the ODI and Test series is being received by local fans in the context of the dispute between the two cricket boards.

There is plenty to look forward to for India’s team management that includes MS Dhoni, right, and Duncan Fletcher. Getty Images
There is plenty to look forward to for India’s team management that includes MS Dhoni, right, and Duncan Fletcher. Getty Images

JOHANNESBURG // Hot or cold? That was query from Nitin Patel, India’s doctor, to MS Dhoni as the captain limped out of the nets after his session.

The offer was not for coffee, but for a compress to the leg that had been struck by a brisk delivery from Umesh Yadav. Dhoni was his usual unfazed self, and the knock was a typical one for a batsman in the nets: slightly painful, a blow to the ego, but nothing serious at all.

The question, though, typified build-up to the action in this truncated tour of South Africa.

For one, the weather in Johannesburg mirrored this perfectly: when the clouds rolled in, with the odd big droplet splashing down, the temperature dipped sharply, forcing several players to pull a track-suit top over their training gear.

When the clouds moved along, aided by a stiff breeze, the skies cleared to a bright blue, and the sun beat down fiercely through the rarefied Highveld air.

India’s practice session was typically earnest, with the bowlers putting in the hard yards under the watchful eyes of Duncan Fletcher, who squinted through shades from behind the nets, and Joe Dawes, the bowling coach, who should demand a pay hike after new playing conditions came into force and made his job doubly difficult .

Yadav, Mohit Sharma and Mohammed Shami were clearly in their element, enjoying the extra bounce on the practice pitches abutting the main at Wanderers Stadium. After hard toil at home on largely benign surfaces,, with the accent was on reverse swing and drying up the run flow, this was a rare chance for fast bowlers to do what they love. Hitting the right length was crucial, as anything full was pounced on by the batsmen and hit straight back over the bowler’s head. When the ball was short of a length, though, it threatened to deviate off the surface, and carried through with verve, forcing batsmen to play as late as possible, when necessary.

The spinners, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, batted alongside each other in the nets, putting in a long session, probably realising that they will be called upon to contribute at least as much with the bat as ball. South Africa have Imran Tahir in their ranks, but their dependency on pace means India are unlikely to encounter any pitch on this tour – either here in Johannesburg, in nearby Centurion or Benoni or further south in Durban – that will allow the ball to grip the surface overly.

That said, the absence of a medium-pace bowling allrounder, or a batsman who can send down some overs of decent seam-up means that Ashwin and Jadeja are crucial to keeping the balance of the team intact.

India will think about the two Test matches later, only giving them a cursory thought when the Test specialists pitch up in Johannesburg on today for it is the one-day internationals that demand immediate attention. Dhoni and his team are well placed on this count, in more ways than one. While India’s bowling, particularly at the death in subcontinental conditions, has been a perennial point of concern, the batsmen have more than made up for this.

Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and Dhoni have all won matches singlehandedly in the past. No team in the world boasts this depth of explosive batsmen. While the Indian Premier League has been blamed for several strains of deteriorating technique, the one demonstrable positive effect it has had is on how India’s players approach a target. No chase is too formidable, no required run rate too high and the capacity for the line-up to absorb the impact of early wickets or pressure situations has increased dramatically.

What also holds Indian in good stead is the fact that though the team is a young one, which translates directly into fresh legs and a crack infield cordon, each of these players, save Dhawan, has a significant number of ODIs under his belt. Even Rohit, who is only two Tests old, went past 100 ODIs without breaking sweat.

If India are on the ascendancy in the 50-over game, South Africa have floundered in this format over the last few years even as they made big strides in Test cricket. While they can rightfully claim to being the only Test team who succeed with consistency overseas, their one-day unit remains unsettled.

They beat Pakistan in the series in the UAE but then lost at home, Pakistan’s first series victory over the South Africans. The two pillars, Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla, would walk into any world XI, and AB de Villiers’ class is unquestionable, and yet there remains a fragility to the batting unit that a succession of coaches have been unable to rectify.

The alarming statistic that South Africa have lost seven of their last eight ODIs when chasing will have been made known to Dhoni, rendering the toss largely irrelevant. While overcast conditions might call for inserting the opposition – anyway Dhoni’s preferred option – even losing the toss and being forced to bat may not prove damaging.

Not long after the Indian team had returned to their hotel after their training session, a violently loud thunderstorm ripped through Johannesburg, frightening claps of thunder and tongues of lightning proving that the weatherman had got his forecast right.

It was a day of pure cricket for India’s players, with no media commitments, and therefore no talk about how the fractious build-up to the tour might impact things.

Only two fans turned up to the practice sessions, a rarity when India are playing anywhere in the world, and walked away with photographs alongside their favourite stars.

The lack of any build-up or hype meant India will have to wait a couple of days longer to find out just how they will be received by local fans seething at the manner in which the tour was shortened to make space for Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell Test series.

What will their reaction be when India’s players take the field? There is that question again: hot or cold?

Anand Vasu is managing editor of Wisden India.