South African cricket might have experienced an upheaval but you wouldn’t know it observing its players.
The South African cricketers, barring captain Graeme Smith, interacted with the media on Thursday — and it must have been at least mildly discomfiting, for the size of India’s cricket media is overwhelming — but they appeared remarkably calm and self-contained.
This didn’t preclude them, however, from the witty repartee — they were anything but the boring automatons, the ‘well-oiled machine’, they’re portrayed as; indeed Paul Harris already has enough material for a stand-up routine sourced largely from his antics as a left-arm orthodox spinner.
The routine questions were dealt with professionally: yes, former coach Mickey Arthur will be missed, but he had a great run and he put excellent systems in place; the number-one ranking is a bonus not something to be obsessed over (A.B. de Villiers did say that South Africa lost the top spot because vision was lacking); India will miss Rahul Dravid at No. 3, a crucial spot, but too much mustn’t be made of it.
While preferring not to be drawn on the specifics of their preparation and their strategy, the South Africans were forthcoming on why they’ve always competed well in India.
“We look to come here and play in Indian conditions. If it was easy, then everybody would be playing Test cricket,” said Dale Steyn, the world’s premier fast-bowler. “We are looking for the most difficult conditions, we prepare for the most difficult conditions.
“We all play this game because you want to find out who you are as a person. You want to find out how far you can stretch yourself at this level, how good you are over five days against some of the best players in the world. There’s no better contest to take part in.”
Steyn, who has a fine record in India (15 wickets at just over 20), said it was important to sustain intensity over a day of bowling. “The biggest thing about India is that you have to hit the deck,” he said.
“Obviously the truth is that we are not going to get the movement and the bounce that we get at the Wanderers. That is the dead honest truth.
“However, the aggression and the way that we bowl doesn’t change. I’ve said it many times before, a 145 or 150 kmph yorker is absolutely no different whether you bowl it here in Nagpur, Chennai, Johannesburg or Perth.
“It’s the skill behind the delivery, what the planning is behind the delivery that is what counts at the end of the day. Reverse swing is a massive thing, obviously that’s what is the key here in India,” said Steyn.
Jacques Kallis, South Africa’s best batsman, said the subcontinent had grown familiar with the increase in the frequency of tours. The IPL, he said, had helped foreign cricketers understand their Indian counterparts better.
IPL has helped
“A lot of teams are adapting to the conditions of the subcontinent a lot better because of spending more time here,” said Kallis. “You end up playing with a lot of Indian players during the IPL, so you see the way how they do things and how their mentality works; so players all around the world are learning better to adapt here now.”
But isn’t it counteracted by the Indians having Gary Kirsten, Paddy Upton, and Eric Simmons — all of whom know South Africa intimately — in their support staff?
“There is so much technology these days, everybody knows other’s gameplans. I don’t see that as a major advantage,” said Kallis although J.P. Duminy conceded that it could benefit India.
Need for quality spinner
While South Africa’s batsmen have worked on starting against spin (de Villiers said Kallis had helped him with that on the previous tour), the touring side seems hamstrung by the lack of a quality spinner.
Not if you listen to Harris. “I’ve been around for three years now and no one has expected anything out of me, everyone thinks I’m rubbish,” he said. “We’ve got our gun fast bowlers who bowl quick and scare the life out of batsmen, it’s my job to make sure they can rest when it’s not turning and when it turns I can come into the game.
“People have perceived me as not being a very good bowler, and they have been shocked. Maybe I’ll shock a few people again, maybe I can get a few of the Indians to believe that I’m either brilliant or useless.”