The Proteas have to be wary of Ashwin's guile, especially if the curators can deliver the dry wickets India wants.
Virat Kohli, looking dapper in a suit, arrived at teammate Harbhajan Singh’s wedding reception in New Delhi on November 1. He was in a jovial mood, unlike the bouncers protecting him, and he hugged, laughed and chatted with friends. A rockstar on and off the field, India’s Test captain seems to have lifted the team’s dwindling fortunes in the longer format.
In contrast, his South African counterpart, the bespectacled Hashim Amla, is a man of few words. When not scoring big hundreds, he can be found strolling around the hotel with his wife and children. Dale Steyn, the South African spearhead, calls Amla a “clever guy”. “Hash can be quite deceptive and calm. He goes for the kill,” he says. “He hardly runs but his strike rate is 90 and his average is massive. As captain, he is the same. He has a calm way of talking but, when he tells me to do something, I am pumped up and ready to go.”
Kohli and Amla have had short stints as Test skippers and both won a series in Sri Lanka. The similarities end there. Now, the contrasting captains will slug it out in an intense Test series which, according to team India director Ravi Shastri, is “THE series”.
The four-match series is the sternest test for both skippers. Amla leads a balanced, talented and versatile side, the best in the world, which seems prepared for any challenge. Meanwhile, Kohli leads a young side with promising batsman and lethal spinners. The playing conditions and the teams’ ability to adapt to them will be the key in deciding the series.
Of course, India’s home advantage will be come into play, says Shastri. “I believe you should play to your strength at home. It has been happening over the years, whenever teams have played around the world. Having said that, I see a terrific series on our hands. Probably one of the best we have had in the past 10 years. That’s because of the cricket South Africa have played in the past 10 years.”
For Kohli, the battle with the Proteas, his first home series as captain, will be a test of his patience, maturity and his ability to handle home pressure. The Shastri-Kohli team has been working wonderfully and Kohli, India’s batting anchor, has shown that captaincy does not dull his blade. “He is going along beautifully,” says Shastri. “I thought the Sri Lankan win was a real test of character for the boys and him. He rose to the occasion and will learn more.”
Kohli’s approach has been result-oriented and he doesn’t let a match taper off tepidly. This has been a welcome change. He has a bunch of equally enthusiastic youngsters who respond well to his demands. “This is a side whose average age is 25 to 26 and there are plenty of years ahead. It is good to play the best team in the world when you are young because that’s when you learn the most,” says Shastri.
The crucial contest will be between India’s batting and South Africa’s pace bowling. However, the South Africans also have to be wary of off spinner Ravichandran Ashwin’s guile, especially if the curators can deliver the dry wickets India wants. Kohli also has Ravindra Jadeja, who is always a handful on dry wickets, as well as leg spinner Amit Mishra, in whom he has immense faith. The pacers are Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma, whose one-match ban could be crucial. Stuart Binny, along with Jadeja, will be the all-round options.
“I think he [Ashwin] is possibly India’s spearhead, which is a great challenge and something I really look forward to,” says South African opener Dean Elgar. “You can only prepare the best with what you have. We are lucky we have a few off spinners in our side and we face them quite a bit as well.”
In the batting department, Kohli has a problem of plenty. All three openers— Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and K.L. Rahul—have been among runs. With Ajinkya Rahane and him claiming two spots, Kohli has to choose between the erratic Rohit Sharma and a resurgent Cheteshwar Pujara.
Breaching India’s strong defence on its own turf is a daunting task. And, with South Africa having won the T20 and ODI series, there is added pressure on Amla to deliver a clean sweep. Meanwhile, his batting form has been a matter of concern. In 15 ODIs since the match against Ireland in the World Cup, he has only one score of above 50. His average: 26.13. Critics are now bringing up his average, 17.85, in the ongoing tour. This from a man whose career Test average is 52.45.
Amla, however, can find solace in the fact that the Proteas have not lost an away series for more than eight years. And, he has AB de Villiers, the most exciting cricketer in the world. The explosive batsman has looked at home in India and even scored a century in the warm-up match. Also, such is the depth in the South African squad that, Quinton de Kock, who performed well in the ODIs, was sent home by the selectors. Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel form the pace line-up, and Amla also has the option of including Kagiso Rabada, the breakout star of the ODI series. Imran Tahir will be the main spinner and the Indian batsmen need to be wary. They have, in the past few series, taken the spinners lightly. They also need to disprove the growing notion that they don’t play spin as well as their predecessors. J.P. Duminy, expected to be back from injury soon, will support Tahir, besides strengthening the lower batting order.
“In India, I think it is a lot more aggressive now. In the past, the pitches spun on days three, four and five, but they start doing that on day one now,” says South African batsman Faf du Plessis. “So, that means the matches won’t last long. But, if it lasts only three days, we will attack, making sure to wait for an opportunity to grab momentum.”
India’s lack of preparation was evident in the ODI and T20 series; even the team admits to this privately. South Africa, however, have come prepared. The batsmen have adjusted remarkably well to the conditions. For India, now is the time to make amends.