After months of uncertainty over the schedule of the tour, and even whether it was even going to commence, India kick off their tour of South Africa with the first of three ODIs ahead of the two Test matches on Thursday. While the tour is big in the sense that it is the #1 ranked Test side pit up against the #1 ODI side, the tour consisting of just three limited overs games, and two Tests, diminishes the contest a little bit – however the politics of the BCCI and CSA is a discussion for another day.
MS Dhoni’s men go to South Africa on the back on some pretty good form, with six consecutive ODI series victories as well as six consecutive Test match victories. The six consecutive Test victories shouldn’t fool you though as they were at home and come at the cost of eight consecutive Test match losses abroad in England and Australia.
Much has been made about the inexperience of the Indian squad touring South Africa, with a 200 Test match veteran having just retired. The thing with Indian cricket followers, and Indian society in general is that we have always been raised to fear failure, where mediocrity is akin to failure. Failure is not seen as a stepping stone towards success. This is why like other Asians, there has become an Indian stereotype in the West of being studious and hardworking, a stereotype that isn’t unfounded. How this relates to cricket is that the Indian public, and as an extension the BCCI and its selection committee in the past, was that there was a fear of the sight of a young brigade failing in England and Australia in 2011/12, that they stuck with the senior stalwarts of Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman over eight losing causes. This fear of failure for the younger brigade, the Pujaras, the Rohit Sharmas, the Shikhar Dhawans, lost India the opportunity to blood them at the Test level before facing arguably the toughest Test assignment of the last few years – a Test series in South Africa.
Times have changed now. With the retirements of Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar, the form and fitness issues of Gambhir and Sehwag, has meant that India has no option but to stop sheltering the younger players from Test matches abroad, and exposing them to the pace, bounce, and movement of tracks in South Africa, and in the next twelve months, New Zealand, England and Australia.
Despite the inexperience in the batting line up, India need not feel a fear of failure in South Africa. Although on paper this seems the most inexperienced Indian line up in terms of Test caps in recent memory, the current batting line up has been knocking on the door of the Test team for at least three years. In those years, they have been plying their trade across the world in ‘A’ Tours, in the Indian ODI team, in the IPL and CLT20, and occasionally in Tests when one of the former greats was injured or rested.
Shikhar Dhawan’s shown one and all that he has what it takes to play the quicker bowlers. Earlier this year against South Africa in the opening game of the ICC Champions Trophy in Cardiff, he was hit in the head by a rising Morne Morkel delivery. In the past, something like this would’ve shaken up an Indian batsmen. He would have been looking to get to the other end as quick as possible, to conserve his wicket. However, Dhawan went about his work, fighting back from that knock to the head to score his first ODI century. Dhawan, was also a heavy scorer in India A’s recent tour to South Africa, albeit on more placid surfaces than are expected for the real tour, so despite much time to aclimitise to conditions on tour, there is an air of familiarity.
Rohit Sharma’s move to the top in the ODI game has been a revelation, he has finally been able to become a player worthy of his spot, rather than trying to be as prolific a batsmen as Virat Kohli – a batsmen he spent a lot of his early career fighting for a spot with. His batting style in ODIs, which has taught him to build an innings, will help him in the longer format – as was shown recently in his first two Tests. Another one not afraid of a barrage of short pitch bowling, he will need to use his current form and the ODI series to adjust ahead of the two Tests against the likes of Steyn, Morkel and Philander.
There are however still question marks over Murali Vijay, and the make up of the bowling attack. Vijay has proven to be quite a formidable opener in home conditions, but is yet to hit back at his critics abroad. A good tour here and he will make the openers spot his own.
India have often relied on two to three spinners in the recent past, usually playing two spinners in ODIs in the form of Jadeja and Ashwin, even while touring. It will be interesting to see if they continue with that combination in the Test series as well, and incorporate three seamers. Many eyes will be on the return of senior spearhead Zaheer Khan after almost a year out of the Indian side. Much has been talked about his fitness work with Yuvraj Singh in France earlier this year, and India will need him to help the new generation not get too carried away with the assistance on offer in South Africa. It will be a good learning experience for the likes of Shami Ahmed, Bhuvenshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav.
It looks to be a cracking series, especially after the ‘Cold War’ so to speak between the two administrating bodies. The new era of Indian cricket can make a mark for itself, moving out of the shadows of the golden era which came to an end in Mumbai just last month.