Formed from the clay of a limited-over contest, the two-Test series between India and South Africa seems more like hastily-made, half-baked earthenware than carefully-crafted, subtly-textured porcelain.
For those that prefer their imagery more direct, perhaps the suggestion of the series as a hurried scuffle rather than an elaborate engagement will do the trick. It’s a pity that the battle between Test cricket’s two best sides is confined to two Tests; with the reduced possibility of a decisive verdict and hardly any space for the plot to develop organically, some of the classical forms bewitching qualities are lost.
But what the brevity of the series does do is invest it with immediacy. The first Test, which begins here at the VCA Stadium (Jamtha) on Saturday, is now a high-wire act: the margin of error has thinned; neither side can afford a slip-up — quickness in assessment and precision in execution will be everything.
The fact that the number-one ranking is on the line adds to the series. While cricketers hardly obsess over ranking, it’s something the common fan can relate to. India needs at least a drawn series to retain the top spot; South Africa will regain the top ranking if it wins its second series in India.
India has its task cut out. Not only is M.S. Dhoni’s side blighted by injury, but in South Africa, it’s confronted with an opposition that has always competed on level terms in India. In 10 Tests in India, South Africa has won four and lost four. While the rivalry between India and South Africa isn’t as glamorous or as storied as the one between India and Australia, it is no less fascinating.
The subject of style in team sport, conditioned by culture and reinforced by the coaching peculiarities prevalent in a region, is beyond the scope of this preview. It does however place in perspective the difficulties India has had against South Africa: the match-up of styles benefits South Africa, for India does better against direct, frontal attacks, (which explains in part both India’s success against Australia and Australia’s success in India when it attacked less directly).
South Africa, in its four tours of India, has banked on its quick bowlers. The method, when the track offers little, involves denial of runs by bowling wide lines, thereby frustrating India’s stroke-makers.
When the pitch behaves inconsistently they bowl straighter and use the short ball to good effect. A measure of South Africa’s success may be had from the fact that Sachin Tendulkar, in eight Tests at home against the Proteas, averages a shade over 28.
A contest within
The most-anticipated contest of the series is the one between India’s openers and South Africa’s new-ball pair. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have powered India’s recent success while Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, the world’s quickest new-ball pair, were irresistible in the recent series against England.
The contest is coloured by the absence of Rahul Dravid at three and the uncertainty over V.V.S. Laxman’s fitness. Should Laxman not play, will Sehwag and Gambhir bat differently in the knowledge that they’re followed by three-Test-old M. Vijay, debutants S. Badrinath and Rohit Sharma, and Sachin Tendulkar?
Another contest of interest will be the one for reverse swing. Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma (who showed signs of having recovered his rhythm in Bangladesh) have often advanced the onset of reverse swing, wearing out the SG Test ball’s lacquer by bowling cross-seam, all the while maintaining, through spit and polish, the shine on one side.
Steyn, Morkel, and Wayne Parnell experimented with the SG Test ball during the warm-up match, and if they manage to trigger reverse swing, their penetrative air-speed will make them a formidable challenge.
Harbhajan must step up
India’s bowling must pose formidable challenges of its own. Harbhajan Singh has to step up as lead spinner. Amit Mishra might regain his spot as second spinner although Dhoni allegedly prefers Pragyan Ojha on slow surfaces — the reason being Mishra’s slower speed through the air, which allows batsmen to play the leg-spinner off the pitch.
Often champion sides have found in adversity reserves of skill and will they didn’t suspect existed. From the way the teams line up, it appears India will have its moments of adversity during the Test. India’s supporters will hope the side’s response will be befitting of a champion.
The squads (from):
India: M.S. Dhoni (capt. & wk), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, M. Vijay, Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, S. Badrinath, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Amit Mishra, Pragyan Ojha, Rohit Sharma, Sudeep Tyagi, A. Mithun, and Wriddhiman Saha.
South Africa: Graeme Smith (capt.), Ashwell Prince, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, A.B. de Villiers, J.P. Duminy, Mark Boucher (wk), Dale Steyn, Paul Harris, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Johan Botha, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Ryan McLaren, and Alviro Petersen.
Umpires: Ian Gould and Steve Davis. Third umpire: Shahvir Tarapore. Match referee: Andy Pycroft
Hours of play: 9.30 a.m. to 11.30 a.m., 12.10 p.m. to 2.10 p.m., and 2.30 p.m. till close.