If delivered with control, pace is perhaps the most captivating component of Test cricket. There are few better sights in the game than a fast bowler sprinting in and hurling the ball at high speed. The level of excitement depends on what the ball does after pitching and if the bowler does enough, it can put the greatest of batsmen in discomfort.
Of all those involved, a batsman is the only one who doesn’t enjoy this side of the battle. He can play with poise, power and pleasure when conditions suit him, but when the bowler gets invigorating life and lift from the surface, the nature of contest changes. For a bunch of promising Indians in South Africa, this is going to be the name of the game over the next few weeks.
Most of them are capable batsmen, their record at home belying their experience. They have shown the talent to dominate bowlers and the temperament to grind them out. However, the challenge staring at them is something that they have not often encountered. There will be the lightning pace with late swing from Dale Steyn, steep bounce from Morne Morkel and the slower but accurate inward and outward movement of Vernon Philander. Just how effective a combination this is can be gathered from the fact that they have 322 wickets between them in 64 home Tests.
Add to it the past that the seven batsmen picked have a combined experience of playing three Tests in South Africa and the present that they looked clueless in the two ODIs and the image of the future that flashes across isn’t encouraging. The vocal and not so cordial slip cordon and those fielding at short-leg will only make things more intimidating. The tendency of several Indian batsmen to go for strokes early on can turn out to be a handicap as well.
“Things don’t look very bright. The way we capitulated in the ODIs shows that pace and bounce is bothering us. The only hope is they have learnt because you can learn from failures. It’s now a question of taking those lessons into the Test arena. Like figuring out what are the shots that will work and that won’t. One hopes things will change, but how they will change is the question,” said former India opener Aakash Chopra.
Before the series, some former cricketers were saying playing the ODIs before Tests would help the batsmen get used to the conditions. Given that India were all out twice in 76.1 overs in those matches, it can be debated how helpful that experience has been, but there can be no debate over the fact that because of this, the batsmen will go into the Test series with their confidence ruptured and pride pricked.
“The story could have been different had they batted well in the ODIs, but if you get hammered in those games it might become a baggage you don’t want to carry. Let’s be practical, think of putting up a fight and take this as a learning curve. It will be good if we can put up one or two great performances. That will be a big plus for the future. Let’s not expect too many things,” was former India opener Arun Lal’s view.
Potentially, there is nothing wrong with the batsmen. They have proven their worth in the chances they have got. It’s just that the test awaiting them is something they have not faced yet and it’s also an attack that the best in the world have struggled to cope with.
In the last three years, Steyn & Co have thrice bowled out oppositions for totals under 50. These bowlers can destroy a batting line-up with the completeness of a bushfire. Few other attacks in the world are as menacing and whether India can confront fire with fire is the question that will be answered in the days to come. They are all accomplished stroke-players, but other faculties of batsmanship and traits of character will be tested now. Failure will probably not break careers, while success will certainly enhance reputations. It’s time to see what they are made of.