de villiers

Why out-choking South Africa was the result India needed

9 wickets for 29 runs. Pause for a moment and let that sink in. Even if the pitch was a mine field and the bowlers delivering unplayable deliveries ball after ball, there is simply no excuse for the best batting line up in the world to implode in such a spectacular manner. It was a choke of the highest order, and the South African team would have appreciated that. Then in the second innings, India did pretty well to keep them to 284 with 13 runs to get at the start of the final over. Then Dhoni threw the ball to Nehra; and I immediately expected South Africa to win with a ball to spare. As it turned out, Peterson didn’t even wait till then. I was so stressed out with the result, that I literally had a migraine attack for the next few hours!

Still, now that I have had time to calm down and think about it, this might be the best result for India at this stage. As Dileep Premachandran pointed out in a tweet during the game, a loss will be the only outcome which will force Dhoni’s hand, to make changes to the bowling line up. Why Dhoni went with three pacers against a team like South Africa who struggle against spinners, is beyond me. Having Munaf and Nehra play in the same game is a recipe for disaster and Dhoni paid for stubbornly sticking to whatever game plan he had in his head. How India would have loved to have Ashwin bowling in the batting power play, when De Villiers and co took off! The time for experimentation and improving ‘mental strength’ of players is over – Ashwin has to come in, and Nehra has to sit out. I am not a big fan of Munaf, but compared to Nehra, he has shown more discipline and skill while bowling during crucial phases of the game. Still, it was sad that while Zak was bowling his heart out with skill and precision, the other pacers couldn’t support him. Harbhajan bowled better than his figures suggest, and hopefully this result will stoke his ego and bring out the best in him for the next game.

It was a strange kind of day, where India regressed on one area of their game which is their strength and improved in an area which is their traditional weakness. Batting has always been India’s forte, and after reaching 267/1 in 39 overs, one would have expected a minimum score of 350 with the likes of Yuvraj, Dhoni and Pathan to come in. The events following the exits of Tendulkar and Gambhir still rankle, and I won’t dwell much on it; but Dhoni hit the nail on the head, when he suggested that the batsmen shouldn’t have played to the gallery. With the quick fall of the settled batsmen, it was a time to play safe for a few overs and then cut loose. Instead, Pathan, Yuvraj, Harbhajan all fell to glory shots, when the need of the hour was to hit and run in the presence of a brilliant bowling and fielding effort by the South Africans. Even if we had stumbled on to 320, we could have made a better fist of it. As in the case of Zaheer on the bowling front, all the good work done by Sachin and Sehwag went to nought after the poor follow up by the middle and lower order. Still, I feel that the batting is in good hands, and it is a matter of realizing now that it is never a good time to become complacent. From now on, the batsmen will do well to remember the great implosion at Nagpur when they face off against other teams in the future, and bat according to the situation.

As for the traditional weakness, if at all there is something Dhoni can be happy about, it is the fielding. It still wasn’t perfect, with a couple of dropped catches and singles allowed to be converted into twos, but overall, there was a marked improvement in the fielding. Fielders who usually love to escort the ball to the boundary, now put in dives to ensure that there wouldn’t be any freebies for the batsmen. Kohli, Sehwag, Harbhajan and even Tendulkar at some point, would have gladdened Dhoni’s heart, who might actually start to believe now that there IS a way for the fielding standards to improve. Hopefully, they can sustain the same kind of intensity in the next game as well.

A brief mention about the behavior of Bhajji. While I do not condone abuse of any kind, I think it is important to remember that not every bowler can be a Murali, who responds with a grin when he picks up a wicket. There was a lot of consternation in the twitter-sphere and Cricinfo live comm feedback section over Harbhajan’s reaction to De Villiers’ wicket; and while I belive that it is not necessary for a feisty send off to the dismissed batsman, I believe that players like Bhajji need that kind of spark to play better. It is not pretty to watch, but neither is it pretty to see that when Steyn reacts in almost a similar manner.

So there it is. I needed to get that of my chest. While India are still searching for a convincing victory in this campaign, I feel that things are slowly falling into place. I believe that we have finally stumbled on to our best combination. The only change I would bring about is the inclusion of Ashwin in place of Nehra. The bowling and fielding showed signs of improvement, while one bad day at the office will not erase the fact that the Indian batting is still the best in the business. If all these areas of India’s game comes together, India might just be glad for that loss to South Africa, which would have prompted a re-think of their strategy and emboldened their players to play better.

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India vs South Africa – Clash of the Titans

Finally, the much awaited non-Ashes test series of the year, is upon us. The No. 1 side takes on the No. 2 side, in a 3 test series, which will confirm if India has finally learned to crack the code in hostile environs. They are led by the capable MS Dhoni, under whom they have not lost a test series in two years, and are packed with world class batsmen and competitive bowlers. Their ground fielding is way behind some of the other teams, but importantly, they don’t drop too many catches. One of the biggest advantages they have going into the series, is the presence of Gary Kirsten and Eric Simons. Their local experience coupled with the extensive preparation they have put in, in the lead-up to the series, could prove to be the tipping point for India. Add to this, the fact that, this is the best Indian team to tour South Africa, ever. If they cannot win the series this time, they might as well forget winning here again for a while, considering that their big three (Sachin, Dravid, Laxman) would be playing in their last tour here.

As for South Africa, they will be having the odds on their side, given their balance and knowledge of the conditions. Any team, which has Steyn and Morkel marking their run-ups at the start of the opposition’s innings, will consider themselves favorites on fast, bouncy pitches. Their spin option is not threatening, but on these grounds, against Indian batsmen, they wouldn’t matter anyway. They have a powerful batting line-up, which can rival India, in terms of racking up big scores. Smith, Amla, Kallis and De Villiers are in no way inferior to Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman. One area, where they are miles ahead of India, is their fielding; and in a tight contest, it could tilt the series in their favor.

Without further ado, here is player-by-player look:

INDIA (best XI)

Gautam Gambhir: Its been a long time, since India have toured South Africa, with a stable opening combination; This time around, they have, perhaps the best Indian openers since Gavaskar. It might be Gambhir’s first test tour of South Africa; but he is a driven cricketer, who has just returned to form, and his partnership with Sehwag will be an interesting plot-line in this series.

Virender Sehwag: He burst into the test scene, with a dazzling debut ton at Bloemfontein in 2001, against the likes of Pollock, Hayward and Ntini. Since then, his average in South Africa is a measly 26.44, compared to an ‘away’ average of 50.67. Needless to say, he will be bursting to set some records straight. He forms one half of the world’s most feared opening partnership, but his wicket will be the most cherished in a class line-up. Recently, he has combined an important trait to his run-away stroke-play: patience. His contest with Steyn and Morkel will be a treat to savor.

Rahul Dravid: He might be not be the same batsman he was four years ago; but, when India tour abroad, there is no better player to turn to. Like other batsmen in the illustrious line-up, his record in South Africa is a glaring inconsistency with the remainder of his ‘away’ stats. He struck a semblance of form in the recent series against New Zealand, but no doubt, Steyn and co, will try to re-inject some old misgivings. All said and done, this is his last opportunity to play a defining role in what could turn out to be India’s finest series win in years.

Sachin Tendulkar: He is playing so well this year, that, when he failed to register a century in the series against the Kiwis, it was a shock to all. He is one ton away, from a record setting 50 centuries in tests, but his mind will be on bigger things. He leads one of the strongest batting line-ups in recent memory and he will know that there is no better chance to beat South Africa in their own den. He averages a respectable 39.76 in SA from 12 matches, with an unforgettable 169 as his highest score. If he can improve on these stats, expect India to be dominant in the batting stakes, Steyn or no Steyn.

VVS Laxman: He has been needed a lot in the last few series, and he has not disappointed. One of the most under-rated batsmen of his generation, he will relish the challenge SA will throw at him. Even if India experience some top order blues, they know that they can rely on Laxman to bail them out. The biggest task for South Africa will be to ensure that he does not mistake them for Australia.

Suresh Raina: Possibly the only weak link in the batting, it is a no-brainer that the Saffers will target him with plenty of bouncers. After a dream start to his test career, his form has tapered off, and SA will consider him ripe for the picking; but there is no doubt, that he is the most talented of the young bunch. Kirsten has worked with him a lot on his batting, and it remains to be seen, if he has learnt his lessons. For inspiration, he needs not look further than fellow southpaw, Alastair Cook, who is changing notions about his batting, in Australia.

MS Dhoni: Captain Extraordinaire. He has a brilliant opportunity to go into the record books, as the first Indian skipper to lead his team to a victory in South Africa. While his keeping has always been steady, his batting form is iffy. He did score an important 98 in his most recent innings, but India will need more of that, to back up Laxman and lead the lower order, if the situation arises. Many critics have pointed out, that Dhoni’s good record is more due to luck, than anything else; but as the man himself said, if his luck is helping India win, then so be it.

Harbhajan Singh: Of late, he has come up with an interesting idea. If he can’t help India with the ball, he will try to win games with his bat. It is all well and endearing, but the focus will be rightly on his bowling. In a land renowned for its spinners, he is the leading tweaker, who hasn’t really managed to penetrate line-ups recently. While talk over his bowling form riles him up, he needs to calm down and realize that India needs him to be at his best against a powerful set of batsmen. Expect the likes of Kallis and De Villiers to target him and disrupt his rhythm. How he responds, will be crucial to Indian hopes of containing any severe damage.

Zaheer Khan: India’s most important bowler is under a fitness cloud right now. It would be an understatement to say, that in his absence, India will find getting 20 SA wickets, that much harder. So, expect the physios to be putting some extra time with him. At the least, India will hope that he can play, so that he can target his favorite bunny’s wrists.

Ishant Sharma: Will be a player worth watching this series. While South Africa has faced him before, it will be a different matter, when they come up against him, on their own pitches. If they prepare bouncy tracks for the benefit of Steyn and Morkel, they better be prepared for some roughing up by Sharma. After months of toiling on subcontinental pitches, he will be licking his lips at the prospect of bowling on lively pitches. If he can maintain control and reduce his no-balls, he will turn out to be a match winner for India.

S Sreesanth: Sreesanth and South Africa will always be remembered for his famous antics after hitting Nel for a six in India’s last tour here. While those might or might not be repeated, India will hope that his bowling in that series will be reprised this time as well. There were some promising signs in the recent series against New Zealand, and if he along with Sharma, can support Zaheer Khan ably, expect South Africa to reconsider their pitch preparations.

SOUTH AFRICA (Best XI)

Graeme Smith: One of the best openers in international cricket, Smith (fitness permitting) will be a tough nut to dislodge once he gets going. Interestingly, he has never scored a century against India in 10 matches, falling to Zaheer and Sreesanth 4 times each. What better chance to set the record straight, than in a contest between the top two teams in international cricket, at home.

Alviro Petersen: After scoring a debut century against India at Eden gardens, Petersen has had a steady career. While there are no immediate concerns, this is an ideal opportunity for him to establish his position in the team. India have been known to be generous to batsmen seeking to make it big on the international stage, and Petersen will be hoping that he will be the beneficiary of India’s largesse.

Hashim Amla: It remains to be seen, how much Amla’s arm injury will affect his form. Just as well – A fully fit and firing Amla will be one of the biggest threats to India’s fortunes. Blessed with the calmness and patience of a monk, he has reeled off several hundreds in the past year. Only time will tell, if he will become a great; but for now, he is doing a damn impressive job and the Saffers will be hoping that he will continue to display the run-scoring appetite he did, in their last series against India.

J Kallis: South Africa’s own Tendulkar. When was the last time this man was out of form, anyway? Along with Amla and De Villiers, he forms one of the most strongest middle orders in the game. His duel with Harbhajan will be worth watching, and expect a lot of words to be exchanged between the two. Add to this, his catching at slips and breakthroughs with the ball – as always, he could prove to be India’s nemesis.

AB De Villiers: The next big superstar of international cricket. Expect him to be breaking a few records this series. He is fresh off a mammoth unbeaten 278 against Pakistan; and at home against the likes of Harbhajan and Sreesanth, he will fancy his chances. If India don’t get him out early, they will be chasing the leather on most days of this tour.

Ashwell Prince: A man whose career mirrors Laxman in more ways than one. Perennially, on the verge of being dropped, it is easy to forget that he is a former skipper of the national team. He tried his hand at opening, to stay in the team, but has rightfully returned to the middle order. He faces competition from Duminy for his spot, and only consistent big scores will make the number 6 slot, his own. Despite having a poor record against India overall, his average shoots up to 61 against India at home. So, he has atleast one thing going for him.

Mark Boucher: His best days might be behind him, but Boucher is the man you need, when you’re in a scrap with the best team. He will relish the challenge of leading the lower order, and his safe keeping will be a source of comfort to the bowlers. Expect his palms to take a lot of pounding, this series.

Paul Harris: While it is easy to rubbish Harris’ performances at the top level, one look at the current state of Australian spin bowling, will show how much worth he is to the SA side. He runs into a line-up, which has demolished better spinners, and his average of almost 50 against them, confirms the non-existence of a threat. He will be expected to perform a containing role, allowing the lines of Steyn and Morkel to run amok.

Dale Steyn: India’s biggest threat to a landmark series win. There is a reason, why there is a lot of talk of Steyn in the lead-up to the series. While his overall bowling average is 23.77 with a SR of 40.4, against India, it drops to 20 and 36.3 respectively. India will not forget his devastating spell at Nagpur in a hurry and their preparations so far, mirror the respect they have for Steyn’s capabilities. His contest with Sehwag will prove to be the biggest of all mini-clashes in this series.

Morne Morkel: If Sehwag and Gambhir form the toughest opening partnership in international cricket, Steyn and Morkel form the most lethal new ball pair going around. While his bowling stats against India are not very impressive, sheer pace and bounce (that old nemesis of Indian batting) will prove to be a handful on home pitches.

L Tsotsobe: He will be the most inexperienced bowler among the two teams, and India will hope they can get some respite from Steyn and Morkel through him. Don’t take him lightly though. With good left arm swing, complementing the fiery pace of the new ball bowlers, he could yet prove to a wild card. Afridi and Pakistan found out the hard way.

All in all, it promises to be a riveting series. At least, it will prove to be more of a contest than the one taking place down under!