A good show here will prove that the team is on the right track

This has been a year of the good times for Indian cricket.

England (in ODIs), Australia and West Indies were humbled at home and when the Men in Blue boarded their flights overseas for limited-over cricket, the champagne flowed as the ICC Champions Trophy was won in England, a Tri-series was secured in the Caribbean and a one-day series was claimed in Zimbabwe.

But when M.S. Dhoni’s men get set for a four-week stint in South Africa, starting with the ODI at the Wanderers Stadium here on Thursday, the challenges staring at them are four-fold.

The most binding would be the need to extend the good run. Secondly, India has to reiterate its credentials abroad especially after the harrowing memories of losing eight Tests collectively in England and in Australia during the 2011-12 season. Thirdly, with Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement from Tests, a relatively young team has to earn its stars while coping with transition. And lastly, the team has to adjust to the off-field fall-out over a shortened match schedule.

Obviously, a collateral damage inflicted by the cold vibes between a few BCCI and Cricket South Africa officials, which is a terrible contrast to 1991 when the Proteas got back to international cricket after abandoning its racist apartheid era and India was the first to host Clive Rice’s men.

In a sense, like Dhoni has said, it is good that India is starting its campaign with a three-match ODI series.

The fielding restrictions and the cramped nature of a limited-over clash ensure that any weakness cannot be probed and it’s the batsmen who set the tone and in that India has been well endowed.

Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli are in prime form. Dhoni has done his ‘break the barn-door’ roles and Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina too got some good time in the middle against the West Indies at Kanpur.

The bowling, through the presence of Mohammad Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma, has the desired blend of swing and adequate speed. It is supposed to be summer out here, but nights are nippy and clouds have hovered close — it rained here on Tuesday evening. The hint of moisture in the air and pitches that aid bounce should keep the seamers interested and the five were busy in the nets at the Wanderers on Tuesday afternoon where even Dhoni suffered a blow on the leg while batting. The squad has the right ingredients to change the poor history that shadowed Indian teams in ODIs in South Africa. India is yet to win a bilateral or even a Tri-series in South Africa though the team’s fortunes have flourished in multi-team environments like the 2003 ICC World Cup (finalist) and the 2007 ICC World Twenty20 (champion).

Add to it South Africa’s tentativeness in its own backyard — losing 1-2 to New Zealand and 1-2 to Pakistan over the last 11 months — and surely India has room for hope.

Formidable outfit

On paper, the South African limited-over side led by A.B de Villiers and enriched with the experience of Jacques Kallis and the menace of Dale Steyn, is a formidable outfit but as in the past, a bout of nerves seems a permanent drawback when pressure mounts.

The subsequent Tests (at Johannesburg and in Durban) though would be an entirely different challenge. India’s current Test batting line-up is indeed short on experience but Kohli, with a 116 at Adelaide, has shown that talent can flower in hostile conditions too.

It is a lesson that would not be lost on someone like Cheteshwar Pujara, who for all the runs he has amassed in India, would rue the 19, 10 and 2 he scored during India’s last tour in 2010-11. And as for bowling, Zaheer Khan’s return as spearhead and mentor will hold the pacers in good stead.

Peering at the past also offers a positive clues as India held South Africa to a 1-1 draw in the 2010-11 series. A good show here will prove that the team is on the right track and for that, Dhoni’s men have to coat their smooth evolution with potency across the seas while Steyn and company wait in anticipation.

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