People usually are galvanised as ever, to visit the exquisite nation of South Africa, and become a part of the famous African Safari. Their excitement and curiosity is justified as well; since they get to witness some endangered species, along with the brawny king of the jungle, the lion.
However, the “African Safari” which I write about is a “little” different from the actual safari. In the actual safari one gets to witness the lions, feasting on their prey, from a considerable distance. But in this case, the one’s visiting the safari, more often than not; have been savagely mauled by the famished South African lions, and ripped apart into pieces. The lions in this particular case, to name a few are the KALLIS’s, the AMLA’s, the SMITH’s, the STEYN’s and the PHILANDER’s, along with several others.
The African Safari consists of the teams touring South Africa, who have more often than not, been attacked ferociously by the lions (Pun intended). My previous claim can be seconded by statistics as well. Over the past 24 months, the menacing South African bowling trio of Steyn, Philander and Morkel has feasted upon the fragile batting line ups of New Zealand and Pakistan. Both the mentioned teams were all, but out in the 40’s. Well these were FRAGILE batting line ups. On the other hand, in 2011, the same bowling trio dismissed the reliable Australian batting line up for a mere 47. At one point in time, the Aussies were 21-9!!!!!!!!!! And yes, the batting line up included the likes of Shane Watson, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey.
The ability to dismantle batting line ups in the 40’s on three occasions within two calendar years is more than enough to justify the threat the South African team possesses. It would just be an understatement to say that South Africa has the most valuable resources of fast bowling. However, the core competence of the bowling attack is formed and based upon the lethal trio of DALE STEYN, MORNE MORKEL and VERNON PHILANDER. The members of the trio complement each other really well, and all have different weapons, that make them stand out. Dale Steyn relies on his pace and swing, which threatens every right handed batsman. Philander depends upon the seam movement to get wickets. One point worth noting is that Philander has taken 95 test wickets in 18 matches at an average of just 17. However, Philander may not be as nippy as his companions. On the other hand, Morne Morkel’s arsenal includes the bouncy stuff, which at pace, may be too hot to handle.
The South African batting line up doesn’t need any sort of introduction. The likes of Amla, Smith, Kallis and De Villiers possess numbers which speak for themselves. AB De Villiers has been in the form of his life, and is the leading run getter in 2013, after combining the three formats. Graeme Smith too has struck form, after a pleasing double ton against Pakistan in the UAE, not so long ago. Hashim Amla, as always has been on cloud nine, and his appetite for runs is increasing almost exponentially (Pun intended). Doubts lingered over the form and future of Jacque Kallis, who soon put them to rest, after a timely half century against Pakistan.
The middle order looks settled, with the likes of JP Duminy and Faf Du Plessis cementing their positions, and doing well. The main spinner to be chosen would be Imran Tahir, who made a grand comeback against Pakistan in UAE. In a rare case, Robin Peterson may be chosen, as his batting has been a positive. However, the chances of Peterson’s selection over Tahir seem to be bleak.
However, the South African lions may not be able to feast upon their opponents this time around. The reason being simple. INDIA.
The Indian team has been on a rampage; and like South Africa, has ruthlessly mauled its opponents. Ask a certain Australian and a West Indian team, and you will have no choice but to sympathize with them. The batting of the current Indian set up has been termed as the “best batting team” by several greats of the game. That claim is pretty much supported by the fact that the top three run getters in ODI’s this year, are the top three in the Indian batting line up. The leading run getter in ODI’s this year has been Virat Kohli with 1237 runs, followed by Rohit Sharma, who has 1159 runs in his kitty. Shikhar Dhawan is not far behind either, with 1150 runs.
There is a renowned saying all crossing India, which states that, “IF Rohit doesn’t get you, then Shikhar will.. If Shikhar doesn’t get you, then Rohit will.. Or if both don’t get you then Virat will get you big time.” The Australian bowlers received a handful from the trio during their recent tour. In the very tour, India scaled down targets in excess of 350 twice, and posted 380 odd once. Those figures will send shivers down the spines of any bowler across the globe.
If the batting was not enough, then “SIR” Ravindra Jadeja, as fondly called, has been the leading wicket taker in ODI’s this year with 51 scalps. Jadeja’s exploits played an instrumental role in India’s victory in the Champions Trophy, earlier this year. Bowling stump to stump at a brisk pace, has been Jadeja’s strength.His miserly economy rate too has bolstered the Indian bowling. Jadeja has found able support in Bhuvaeshwar Kumar and R.Ashwin. Kumar has been a sensation for India with the new ball, and his ability to bowl long spells has been a massive plus.
However, test matches away from the subcontinent are a different ball game altogether. In South Africa, the strategies of the Indian team would have to change considerably, as the conditions would surely not be, to their liking. The pitches will aid pace and bounce and the outfield will be lightening quick, especially in Johannesburg, which is at a high altitude. But the one major factor, which would give the team management headaches, would be the departure of Sachin Tendulkar from the international stage. For Indian fans, cricket from now onwards will never be the same without the great man. The candidate, most likely to take his position would be Virat Kohli.
The contribution of Cheteshwar Pujara too is noteworthy. To be fair to Pujara, one can say that as of now, he has done justice to the spot vacated by another member of the “fab four” club, Rahul Dravid. Pujara has been hitting test centuries at will, and at a healthy rate. Pujara averages 65.5 in test matches, and has two double tons under his name. More significantly, Pujara captained the India A side successfully this year in South Africa. Under his leadership, India won the tri series and drew the tests against the host, 1-1.
In the first “A” test, India won comprehensively by an innings and 13 runs. In that very game, Pujara, Rohit and Raina blasted tons, and the rest of the damage was done by the talented Shami Ahmad and Ishwar Pandey. In the second test however, South Africa A came back strong, and won the game. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that, the India A turned complacent and made as many as 5 changes to the team. On that very tour, in a must win tri series game, Shikhar Dhawan smashed a record breaking 248 from just 150 balls.
The squad chosen by the Indian selectors looks reasonably settled, barring a couple of exceptions. The inclusion of Zaheer Khan has sent out vibes of optimism, as Zaheer was the one who made a mark on the previous tour to South Africa. On the last tour, India were butchered in the first test, but came back strongly in the Durban test, due to Zaheer’s sensational comeback, from a groin injury. However, the exclusion of Gautam Gambhir from the squad has been very baffling, since no reserve opener has been named. Gambhir scored a fighting ton in a Ranji Trophy game, less than a week ago, but still couldn’t find a place in the squad. In the test matches, it will be interesting to see, if India go with five bowlers -six batsmen, or with an all rounder at number 7, and then followed by four bowlers.
If India go with the latter, then Ashwin and Jadeja may both play, and three seamers from Umesh Yadav, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami may play. If India chooses the former strategy, then Jadeja may have to miss out, meaning Ashwin may bat at number 7, and the benefits of four seamers may be availed.
The ODI series, is most likely to be in India’s favour. The Indian squad looks settled and that hunger for victory is clearly visible. A series win over West Indies would do the team confidence, a world of good. On the other hand, South Africa have lost to the sixth ranked Pakistan, in an ODI series. From the One Day point of view, both teams would go in with different mindsets. Considering, the current form of both the teams, it would be true to say that the ODI series will be won by India 2-1.
Conversely, beating South Africa in their own backyard in tests will require a miracle. No team has done that in the last 4 and half years. On their previous tour, India had come close to doing that, but handed South Africa the initiative back, as Jacque Kallis stole the show with a timely ton. To make things crystal clear, we conduct India’s SWOT analysis, for the test matches:
STRENGTH: The Indian strength lies in their batting hands down. As said earlier, the Indian batting has been top notch and the exploits of Dhawan, Kohli, Pujara and Sharma are well known. The batting line up has the potential to single handedly win games for India. Dhawan can play the short ball well, and can make batting look graceful. So can Rohit Sharma. If we are to consider the current form, then it wouldn’t be wrong to state that if the Indian batting continues its trend, then the African safari may be overcome.
WEAKNESS: The lack of experience may be a weakness. Barring Pujara and Dhoni no one else has played more than one test in South Africa. The bowling attack too hasn’t played test cricket against the full fledged South African line up in their own back yard, barring Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan. The lack of experience may hurt the Indian team big time. Another threat would be that, the tour will be played amidst a jam-packed schedule. The “F” word may come into the picture. Fatigue may be a factor. The last time the “F” word was raised, India were beaten 4-0 by England.
OPPORTUNITY: There are several opportunities which lie ahead of the Indian team. A major opportunity is that the batsmen may prove their worth outside the subcontinent. It is said that India often wins at home. This theory may be proved wrong by India, if they emerge victorious in the test series. After getting inflicted with 8 back to back test losses overseas, the Indians would be desperate to turn the tables on South Africa. Another opportunity is for the bowlers. After a really long time, the pace attack looks settled, and Mohammad Shami was impressive in his debut series, taking 11 wickets from 2 games. His pace and ability to reverse swing may make the South Africans uncomfortable. Umesh Yadav’s case too is similar, who did moderately well in Australia. Zaheer may not have got a better opportunity to comeback, as the conditions have assisted him.
THREAT: The only possible threat for India is the South African pace attack. Dale Steyn and company would want to see the world’s best batting line up on its knees. The conditions may ably support them to do so. Pace and bounce have always made the Indian batters uneasy. This may well be another occasion of it. The South African pace battery may exploit the hard pitches to full effect and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Indian batsman look to duck frequently against the short stuff.
Knowing Indian weaknesses, South Africa may even field an all pace attack. This would mean that instead of Imran Tahir, Merchant De Lage may be in the reckoning. Merchant performed exceptionally in the CLT20, on dead Indian wickets. His height and his ability to bowl every ball in excess of 150km/hr may be well noted by the South African selectors. After this tour, the Indian team will be touring New Zealand, England and Australia continuously.
The battle featuring the world’s best batting line up, pitted against the world’s best bowling attack is awaited, and is sure to grab eyeballs. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if the test series is drawn 1-1. But only time will tell, how well the Indian team fares the African Safari.