There was a time when India used to look enviously, but also with perplexity, at Pakistan’s conveyor belt of fast bowlers. Wasim and Waqar stayed on, but left in their wake a lot of Naved Latif and Kabir Khan-shaped debris. India faces something similar now, but without the W-W axis. Zaheer Khan is a constant (when’s he’s fit), but his supporting acts haven’t quite established themselves, though I still have high hopes for Ishant Sharma. Given the turnover rate, don’t be surprised if India’s attack in South Africa later this year is Zaheer, Abhimanyu Mithun and Avishkar Salvi.
Too much one-day cricket and the resulting need to contain is the culprit, most clearly evinced in Ishant’s ragged performances in the limited overs game, which has seeped into his Test game. Though there were encouraging signs in Bangladesh, South Africa is an entirely different proposition. Ishant needs to resume bowling at 140kph+ for his bounce to be a serious threat in India, and his battle with Morne Morkel will be fascinating to watch – two similar bowlers, one on the ascendant but in unfamiliar conditions, and exactly the reverse for Ishant.
I find it incredible that Harbhajan Singh has taken nearly 350 wickets, especially when comparing him to the ones ahead of (and just behind) him on the list. He has consistently shown a fear of flighting the ball, and as the spin spearhead now, he still refuses to learn. But he will play, of course, and so probably, will Amit Mishra. I like Mishra but if the pitches are too slow, he can be read easily off the pitch. Overall, India’s spin bowling stocks, though hardly in South Africa’s state of disrepair, are running dangerously low, and I can’t help but blame limited overs cricket once again.
South Africa’s batting
Cometh the hour, cometh Smith and Kallis, as the line (almost) goes. Both are big match players, and in a 2-Test series to decide the no. 1 ranking, there are no small matches. There are also no bankers in such a short series, but Kallis scoring a century has to come close. But Smith will have to deal with Ashwell Prince’s unfamiliarity at the top of the order, and his line-up lacks the Indian openers’ ability to grab a game by the throat. The sometimes attritional nature of South Africa’s batting can, though, work in their favour. The Indians prefer combating free flowing strokemakers, and Dhoni has certainly shown a willingness to winkle out wickets with stifling fields. All I’ll say is – good luck trying to bore Kallis out.
Hashim Amla almost always looks good but he is in a woeful trough of form, as is the rest of the middle-order. But at least in AB de Villiers’ case, I’d back him to bounce out of it. AB is very highly-rated (definitely by the Australians) on account of a few superb performances which stick in the mind – Headingley and Perth, notably – and he was brilliant the last time he visited India. In the last couple of years, he has added consistency, that wonderful, under-rated quality possessed by Kallis.
Another big question mark hangs over the middle order. Will JP Duminy play, and if so, which one will turn up – the spectacular matchwinner from 2008, or the walking golden duck of a more recent vintage? It’s hard to even say he’s off-form given how little we’ve seen of him in recent times. South Africa may well go with AB at the top and replace Duminy with Prince in the middle for the second Test if Duminy’s travails continue.
South Africa’s off-field turmoil
The South African team has always been professional – to the point of being robotic – and I don’t think Mickey Arthur’s resignation and the selection committee’s overthrow will have any bearing on this Test series. The side that visited India in 2004 had some clearly over-promoted players, like Thami Tsolekile and Justin Ontong – which may have been politically motivated – and it showed in the team’s defeat. This team has no such issues, but it’ll be interesting to watch whether the quota system was indeed the driver for the current upheaval, and what sort of bearing it has on team composition and morale. But that’s for future series, not this one.
If 2008 repeats itself and India find themselves 0-1 down going into the Kolkata Test, I can almost guarantee that the Eden Gardens pitch will take turn from the first day. What I can definitely guarantee are the resulting howls of outrage and scorn from across the world, howls that were curiously absent when South Africa prepared a swinging, seaming paradise for their formidable pace attack at Wanderers in the must-win final Test against England.
On one hand, a formidable but depleted batting lineup faces a superb, but spin-less bowling attack. On the other, an equally formidable but off-form batting line-up takes on a raggedy bowling line-up familiar with the conditions. Home advantage being what it is, I’m plumping for a 1-0 home win, but it will be close, and South Africa has enough match-winners to negate my prediction and oddsmakers. Their pace attack ran through the Indian BP XI in the practice match, and how well they exploit India’s middle order green-ness will determine the series outcome.