CHENNAI: Luck has probably smiled on India even before a ball has been bowled in the Freedom Series. That Shikhar Dhawan left for South Africa with an injured foot will definitely free India of a headache.
Over the span of the last two years, India have never been shy of rotating their openers, often dropping even the reliable Murali Vijay and KL Rahul for a more-exciting Dhawan.
To India’s credit, these moves have served their purpose, but mostly in the sub-continent and Caribbean. South Africa, on the other hand, will be a different ball game altogether. Though the Kookaburra doesn’t swing in South Africa like it does in New Zealand, bounce and slight seam movement can pose questions for Dhawan, who is susceptive to these thanks to his front-foot play.
During the Sri Lanka series, fielding coach R Sridhar used tennis racquets — instead of throw-down bats — to direct balls at him. Most of these came at chest-height or above, and Dhawan either sliced it to the offside or attempted hooks.
Had he not injured his foot, Dhawan would’ve been a sure starter for Cape Town. Early runs is what the think-tank likes, but benching Vijay or Rahul may be huge in South Africa. It’s not that they have had stellar numbers together. In fact, they average 23.77 in 18 innings, the lowest among all combinations between the three openers. They don’t have a century partnership and have crossed fifty only twice. But, both if set can see off the new ball and bat for long, without giving any chances to the opposition.
Among them, Vijay is even more crucial, thanks to his ability to leave the ball. It comes naturally to him, and it is that set pattern which has paid him rich dividends. Rahul can not only get boundaries at the top but is a more assuring presence than Dhawan.
If these two and No 3 Cheteshwar Pujara can see off the new ball and lay a platform for the middle-order, then India will have no worries for big first-innings totals. Failure to get them is what cost India during their overseas ventures in 2014. They crossed 400 once in South Africa, England and New Zealand. The four times they did in Australia, they flirted with the victory. When they came home, this is what made them unbeatable. Despite oppositions crossing 400, they responded with bigger totals. Now in South Africa, they have the experience to do the same.
If the top-order can take the shine off the new ball, then it will allow Virat Kohli to do what he does best: take control and give the bowlers enough runs to bowl. “It is important to leave the ball well, especially overseas. Once you move out of Asia, there is enough bounce, and that is the reason one should be able to leave the ball,” Pujara said on Tuesday.
“There will be some bounce and that is always a challenge. But we have enough preparation, and we would like to back ourselves to try and execute the things which we have done over the past one and a half months.”