Johannesburg – There is no danger of India being regarded as favourites for the two Sunfoil Tests which will be played at the Wanderers and Kingsmead in the next couple of weeks.
India may have won nine of their last 12 Tests, but all those matches were played in India, on pitches where the bounce is low and seam movement minimal.
South Africa are the clear favourites to win both Tests, because they will be able to use conditions better and because they’re more experienced. India, as usual, have a very talented line-up. Unlike the One-Day format, it’s their batting that may prove their weak point in the Tests.
Whereas in a limited overs format it’s possible to hide your shortcomings because of restrictions on fielding placings and limits on the number of overs bowlers can bowl, Test cricket has no such restraints.
To thrive in that kind of environment, players need experience and India’s potential starting team for the Wanderers has very little of that.
Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni (79), left-arm seamer Zaheer Khan (88) and the tall Ishant Sharma (51) are the only players with more than 50 Test caps. None of them are front-line batsmen. Only Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay among the potential top order batsmen for the first match have played Tests outside India – Kohli, seven (four in Australia and three in the West Indies) while Pujara’s two matches and Vijay’s single Test outside India came in South Africa in the 2010/11 series.
There’s not a lot for them to fall back on and knowledge of what Graeme Smith described last summer as the “most difficult country in the world to bat” is vital.
India’s experience thereof consists of limited overs matches, whether it is those players who participated in the recent ODI series or some who have been here for tournaments like the IPL in 2009 or the two Champions League T20 events South Africa hosted recently.
South Africa is a notoriously hard country to tour for teams from the subcontinent. In a combined 37 Tests for the three sub-continent powerhouses, victory has only been achieved five times. India have done so twice, at the Wanderers in 2006/07 and at Kingsmead in 2010/11 – the two venues for this month’s matches. India’s triumph at the Wanderers was built on half-centuries by Saurav Ganguly and VVS Laxman, with the latter playing an influential role in the Kingsmead victory as well, making a magnificent 96 in the second innings.
The common theme for both those Indian greats was experience, not just of conditions, but actually playing Test cricket, something the younger generation, led by Pujara (15 Tests) and Kohli (20 Tests) lack.
South Africa are fully aware of this, and the main attack dog, Dale Steyn, has made it clear the Indians can expect an assault at the Wanderers this week. Steyn referenced the body blows and bruised fingers suffered by some of the Indian batsmen in the first ODI, saying they can expect more of the same from Wednesday.
The make-up of the Indian squad for this short tour suggests, however, that they are ready to pit quick bowler against quick bowler. Whether they are going to be as aggressive as the South Africans and inflict pain, remains to be seen. It’s not in the nature of the Indian bowlers to go in search of blood, but they have in Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma two bowlers capable of bruising opposing batsmen. Both bowled very well in the ODIs, Shami in particular caused Quinton de Kock plenty of discomfort in the first match at the Wanderers.
And, while Steyn is targeting the Indians because he detects fear, the Indians will look at South Africa’s batsmen and should realise that a few of them are battling for form.
Alviro Petersen, Jacques Kallis and Faf du Plessis have all struggled for runs in the five-day format this year.
A bit like the Indians in the ODIs, the target is now firmly on the backs of the South Africans, as Test cricket’s No 1 team. In Australia last season, and in Tests against New Zealand and Pakistan, they wore that tag with great pride and seemed to revel in their status as the five-day format’s premier team.
The visitors’ lack of Test experience, especially outside of India, will be most worrying for their coaching staff.
They have to hit the ground running, and against Steyn and Co, that is a daunting task.
Likely starting line-ups for First Test:
South Africa: Graeme Smith (capt), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel, Imran Tahir
India: Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkye Rahane, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Ravichandaran Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami.