x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Nothing to choose in battle of South Africa and India

The top two Test teams start their three-match series in Pretoria today with everything to fight for.

Virender Sehwag's battle with the Proteas paceman Dale Steyn will be key in India's three match Test series in South Africa.
Virender Sehwag's battle with the Proteas paceman Dale Steyn will be key in India's three match Test series in South Africa.

The last time India toured South Africa, Mickey Arthur, the coach of the Proteas, asked for a pitch with pace and bounce at the Wanderers after having beaten India 4-0 in the one-day series.

It was the home team who were embarrassed though, skittled for 84 with Shanthakumaran Sreesanth taking five wickets.

But while India went on to win that game handsomely, the rest of the tour followed a predictable script, with Makhaya Ntini inspiring victory at Kingsmead and South Africa edging over the line on a rain-hit final day in Cape Town.

Four years on, the two sides are ranked No 1 and No 2 in the world, though India will retain top-dog status even if they are whitewashed 3-0 in the series which begins in Pretoria today.

Their records over the past three years - a period in which Australia have exchanged unchallenged supremacy for mid-table mediocrity - are uncannily similar.

South Africa are 16-8 from 31 Tests, while the figure for India is 16-7 from 34.

Crucially though, the Proteas have failed to win their last two home series, losing 2-1 to Australia and then drawing with England despite dominating three of the four Tests.

With overcast conditions and sporadic thunderstorms forecast for the start of the series, there is little doubt that the toss will be of paramount importance in setting the tone for what follows.

Having not lost at Centurion for more than a decade, Graeme Smith, the South African captain, did not try to play down the importance of the opening exchanges.

"We really want to put our peg in the ground over the next five days," he said. "It's important to get ahead."

The 2006 win at the Wanderers ground remains India's only success in four tours since South Africa were readmitted to the cricket fold in 1992, and there is little doubt that success here is imperative if they are to be regarded as the legitimate No 1.

Having won 13 of his 21 Tests as the India captain, MS Dhoni is used to dealing with high expectations.

"We always play under pressure whether in India or abroad," he said after the Indians opted to restrict themselves to a yoga session on the eve of the game.

"It doesn't matter whether we are playing Bangladesh or Zimbabwe or any other side."

Off the field, India can call on a South African cricket legend for considerable insight into the opposition psyche.

Gary Kirsten, the India coach, played 101 Tests for the Proteas and is the favourite to take over as their coach once Corrie van Zyl gives up the job after the World Cup.

The Indian camp appears reconciled to the fact that the demands of a young family will force Kirsten's hand once his contract with India comes up for renewal. But there is no doubting the affection and respect he inspires for his role in the side's remarkable progress over the past couple of seasons.

"He knows the mindset of the South African cricketers well, and his views will be really important to us," Dhoni said. "I have always said that he is one of the greatest things to have happened to Indian cricket apart from the talented cricketers we have got.

"Throughout, he has stayed away from the media and just concentrated on the work he needs to do. We have had a great time under him."

With so much class on either side, it is hard to pinpoint a key contest, but Virender Sehwag's new-ball tussle with Dale Steyn is a spine-tingling prospect.

Sehwag has enjoyed considerable success against the Proteas at home, but like his teammates, his numbers in South Africa are far below his career figures.

Dhoni, though, was certain that the occasion would not faze him in the slightest. "That's the beauty of his game," he said. "Whatever comes his way, he will play according to the merit of the delivery."

Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir average nearly 60 as an opening pair, and with India's middle-order trio of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman boasting 34,000 runs and 96 hundreds between them, Smith will be desperate for Steyn and Morne Morkel to break through early. "There is a lot of class in the Indian batting line-up and we respect what they have achieved," Smith said. "But if we can get early wickets and put the middle order under pressure, that will be good."

Despite the weather, South Africa will play Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner, with Lonwabo Tsotsobe edging out Ryan McLaren for the third seam bowler's spot.

India's bowling plans are in disarray with a groin injury making Zaheer Khan, the pace spearhead, extremely doubtful.

Umesh Yadav and Jaidev Unadkat are the quick bowlers in reserve and the fact that he is also a left-armer means that it is the 19-year-old Unadkat who is the favourite to make his Test debut if Zaheer fails his 11th-hour fitness test.

Having drawn their last two series, both on Indian soil (in 2008 and earlier this year), there is little to separate the two sides.

Both sets of bowlers had to cope with frustratingly placid conditions in their last series (South Africa against Pakistan, and India against New Zealand) while the batsmen cashed in.

If the weather stays as it is though, this could be a gripping series, with bat and ball evenly matched.

Despite the hype in South Africa, there has been far less attention elsewhere, with most of the headlines and attention reserved for the clash between Australia and England. "Not really," said Dhoni with a smile when asked if he minded the lower billing. "If you talk about The Ashes, it's a traditional rivalry. It's the same when we play against Pakistan."

The fate of the Ashes could be decided in Perth over the next few days, but if you want to watch some of the world's best cricketers at work, don't lose sight of South Africa over the coming month.

Five players to watch

Virender Sehwag

Having made a century on his debut at Bloemfontein in 2001, he had a miserable tour four years ago, scoring just 89 runs. Dropped afterwards, he spent a year in exile and has averaged 62 since. The most dangerous batsman in the game once he gets a start.

Sachin Tendulkar

Sunil Gavaskar once said he would chastise Tendulkar if he did not finish with at least 40 Test hundreds. He now has 49. But despite having scored one of his best centuries here (169 at Cape Town in 1996), he averages less than 40 in the southern Cape.

Jacques Kallis

Second only to Sir Garry Sobers as an all-round talent, Kallis scores with remorseless consistency. Has the full range of strokes, but for most of his career, he has been the glue holding things together while the stroke players around him express themselves.

Dale Steyn

The best bowler on the planet. Quick, skiddy, capable of banana out-swing and inward movement, he is the complete package. In combination with Morne Morkel, he has taken 206 wickets in 24 Tests. Both men known Centurion well, having played there for the Titans.

Hashim Amla

The most improved batsman in the game. Amla averages 55 over the past three years. In his last series against India, he made 490 runs with three hundreds in two Tests. Impervious to pressure, he is surely a future captain.