steyn

Lessons from the Castle Lager Test series in South Africa

  • Gautam Gambhir: Everyone knew Gambhir has been a brilliant opener for India at home and abroad against weaker teams; but the question was how he would fare in Tests against tougher opponents in countries like England, Australia and South Africa. He took a big step towards answering that by performing creditably in the two games he played. He faced the might of Steyn and Morkel at their furious best, and survived to ensure that India would walk away with a share of the series spoils. Dravid might be out of the team soon, but in Gambhir, India has a batsman who can battle through the tough times to see them through.
  • Virender Sehwag: Possibly, the biggest disappointment of the series. There was big anticipation for the clash between him and Steyn, but there was no contest really. In conditions favorable to the bowlers and against a pumped up pace attack, Sehwag could only manage 144 runs in the series at an average of 24 and a shockingly low SR of 70.24! He will be keen to put this series behind him and come out, all guns blazing in the World Cup at home.
  • Rahul Dravid: In an earlier time, Dravid against this attack and in these conditions would have seen a couple of marathon knocks atleast. Instead, all we got was the sad sight of seeing him struggle to get 120 runs at a SR of 33 and a highest score of 43. He played his part in saving India on the last day of the series, but there is no doubt, that the end is near for a wonderful career.

  • Sachin Tendulkar: In a series featuring the two top teams in the world, it was appropriate that there was a shoot-out for the best batsman in the world today, as well. Tendulkar might not have scored the amount of runs that Kallis did, but his performance was equally awe inspiring. In the first Test, he instilled self belief in the rest of the batsmen over the course of scoring a 50th Test ton, and at Newlands he faced one of the most hostile spells of fast bowling one will ever see, and came out with an innings which made sure that India were on level terms with South Africa. After 21 years in International cricket, there is no end to his gluttonous appetite for runs.
  • VVS Laxman: In a year featuring many classics from this man, the 96 he scored in the second innings of the 2nd Test was perhaps the most important of them all. In the company of the tail, he rescued his team from a precarious situation and gave them a total to defend. In the process, he helped them secure one of their most memorable wins in Test cricket. Its time, India and the rest of the world treasure his batting skills for as long as he is around.
  • Cheteshwar Pujara: It was always expecting too much from Pujara, to face the likes of Steyn and Morkel in their own backyard and come up trumps. Still, the numbers don’t tell the entire story. In the second innings at Durban, he played the most important innings of his brief career so far and weathered the bowlers for close to one and a half hours while giving Laxman valuable support. He would have learnt a lot from this tour and still remains an exciting prospect for the future.
  • MS Dhoni: He came within one wicket of securing his most famous series win yet, but Dhoni will take the eventual scoreline. After all, he has yet to lose a test series as captain. As a captain, his tactics were criticized and his handling of Sreesanth was also open to debate; but as a batsman, he did a decent job and as a keeper, he was safe without being spectacular. This series might have got away, but he can look forward to England and Australia with confidence.
  • Harbhajan Singh: It has been quite a while since he topped the bowling charts for India, and Harbhajan will be satisfied with his performance after receiving a lot of stick from fans and media alike, prior to the series. At Durban, he hastened South Africa’s demise in the first innings; and at Cape Town, he gave India its best shot at a series win. In the end it was not to be, but for once he starred with the ball, rather than with the bat.
  • Zaheer Khan: He was sorely missed at Centurion, and on return at Durban he made his presence felt. He might not have the speed of Steyn or bounce of Morkel, but he has plenty of guile and variations to make up for it. Once again, he had the wood over Graeme Smith so much that Smith asked his opening partner to take first strike against him. He faded ever so slightly on the 4th day at Cape Town, which allowed Kallis and co to take command; but overall, he led the attack very well, and will be a vital weapon for India in 2011.
  • I Sharma: While Zaheer and Sreesanth featured in the news throughout the series, Ishant had a relatively quiet series. A horror match at Centurion was followed by a modest one at Durban and he finished the series with another quiet performance at Cape Town. These were conditions tailor-made for him, but he was thwarted by some good batting and his own indiscipline. Still has problems with no-balls, and I have no idea why Eric Simons has still not found a remedy for that.

  • S Sreesanth: There’s something about South Africa that brings out the best and worst in Sreesanth. One moment, he is bowling vicious snorters to get rid of one of the best batsmen in the world; and the next, he is in trouble with the opposing captain, his own captain, the match refree and the crowd – all for his behavior. He is supposed to be an experienced bowler for India by now, but he is more of an enfant terrible at the moment. He has the talent, but can he maintain his focus in 2011?
  • Raina, Vijay and Unadkat: None of them grabbed the opportunities that came their way, and they have only themselves to blame for that.
  • Graeme Smith: A poor series with the bat, where he could not kick on to make big scores; was more in the news for his poor track record against Zaheer and clash with Sreesanth. Before the series, he made comments alluding that India cannot be considered top dog if they can’t win in South Africa. Forget India, he will do well to remember that South Africa has not won in South Africa for the last three series. By his standards, that’s not the stuff of champions either.
  • Alviro Petersen and Ashwell Prince: Apart from a good innings here and there, did not do much to put their detractors at bay.
  • Hashim Amla: The bearded one had a modest series by his standards. He resumed his love affair with the Indian bowling at Centurion by scoring a century, had a quiet match at Durban, and scored a rapid fire 50 at Newlands before succumbing to a self described ‘sugar rush’. Still, he was the third highest run getter in the series, and he looks in the best of touch. Yousuf might be fading away, but another bearded batting master is taking his place.

  • Jacques Kallis: In a long and distinguished career, Kallis has played some important knocks against top quality bowlers in demanding conditions; but I doubt that any of his previous innings would have given him as much satisfaction as the one he played on the 4th day at Newlands. South Africa was in trouble at 130/6, when he played a vital innings which was as painful (due to injury) as it was gutsy. This was following the century he had scored in the 1st innings to get South Africa to a challenging score. Fair to say, if it wasn’t for him, India would be toasting a historic victory now. If it wasn’t for an unfortunate run-out and a ripper of a delivery, there is no saying what the eventual result could have been. Along with Tendulkar, he proved that age doesn’t matter when you are in a purple patch for as long as anyone can remember, and ignited a debate as to who the better batsman is. Ponting can only look over, with envy. Oh, did I mention that he scored his first ever double century at Centurion?
  • AB De Villiers: Like Amla, he started brilliantly at Centurion with a bruising ton which deflated the Indians, but couldn’t sustain the form for the rest of the series. He was a surprise disappointment of the series.
  • Mark Boucher: If it wasn’t for his fighting half century in the 2nd innings at Cape Town, this could have been his last Test for South Africa. Instead, along with his long time friend and accomplice, he took the game away from India in true gritty manner. If it does prove to be his final innings, he would have signed off in typical style.
  • Paul Harris and L Tsotsobe: While Harris was ineffectual as expected, Tsotsobe was the surprise package. While they were on the look for respite from Steyn and Morkel, Tsotsobe rarely released the pressure, and only uncharacteristic dropped catches prevented him from getting more wickets. He held a phenomenal catch at Centurion to boot.
  • M Morkel: Along with Steyn, great things were expected of him before the series. While Steyn stole the headlines, Morkel did his part. After routing the Indians in the first innings at Centurion, he handed over the honors to Steyn for the rest of the series. He continued to bruise the Indians with his awkward bounce and ended up as the 2nd leading wicket taker in the series. If this was supposed to be a contest between the world’s best batsmen and the world’s best pace attack, there is no doubt who was the winner.

  • D Steyn: While two batting legends set about enhancing their reputations and breaking new ground, there was only one bowling legend in this series. If anyone had any doubts as to the greatness of Steyn, they should watch his bowling in the 3rd Test at Cape Town. Speed, swing, accuracy…he had it all. He had some of the world’s best batsmen at his mercy, and it was only his presence which forbade the Indians to entertain any hopes of chasing down 340 to win. He ended the series as the leading wicket taker with 21 wickets and an average of just above 17. He single handedly nullified the Sehwag threat, and along with Morkel established themselves as the top bowling pair in cricket, without a doubt. Now, only if he could replicate this form in the shorter formats…

Overall, for the third successive time a contest between these two sides has ended in a fair stalemate. It may not compare to the Ashes in terms of history and prestige, but for the pure joy of watching top quality, competitive cricket, this is one clash always worth looking forward to.

Best moment of the series:

Quote of the series:

We’ll need two goats to feed on this grassy pitch.

Harbhajan Singh, that delightful pitch expert, comes up with a novel idea to make the Kingsmead track more batsman-friendly

For my review of the Ashes, click here

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Day 1 1st Test Ind v SA – The case for warm-up games

Recently, when Dhoni was asked about the lack of warm up matches, whenever India tour abroad, he replied saying that, in an ideal world that would be great, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Well, the last time I checked, BCCI live in the same world where ECB also live. You just have to take a look at the contrasting performances of England and India, to realize the importance of warm up matches. It doesn’t matter how early you come to acclimatise, until you practice in a match situation. Due to this, everytime India play abroad, they are on the backfoot immediately, and play catch-up cricket for the rest of the tour. It would have been better if India had this collapse in a warm up; then they could have made whatever adjustments necessary.

This match or series is not lost yet, by any means. If this had happened four years ago, I would have written them off; but this team is number 1 for a reason. They have always found a way to fight back; and I believe that this will still be a tight contest. As much as it was disappointing to see the failures of Gambhir, Dravid, Raina etc, it was heartening to see the way Sachin, Dhoni and Harbhajan played. If the rest of the batsmen can play in a similar, confident vein, in the second innings, it will be easier for the bowlers. Despite Zak’s absence, I think these conditions are suited to Sharma and Sreesanth. So, it will be fascinating to watch, how this unfolds yet.

I am not taking any credit away from the Saffers. Steyn and Morkel walked the talk, and bruised some Indian egos, by the manner of their dismissals. Boucher’s run-out of Harbhajan was an example of smart cricket. So, they have made a strong statement on day 1 of the test. Now, it is up to India to return the favor.

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!