Give Me Freedom... Take Me Higher!

Though batsmen of both sides will take centre stage in shorter versions, bowlers like Steyn, Morkel, Ishant, Ashwin will play decisive part in determining the outcome.

Published: 04th October 2015 04:13 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th October 2015 04:14 AM   |  A+A-

However compelling is the temptation to project the protagonists of the 72-day engagement as Virat Kolhi and AB de Villiers — the two most aggressive prizefighters of the modern game, and they automatically form a sub-narrative of their own — there is an endemic feeling that bowlers of both sides are no less influential figures in shaping the outcome of the series.

india.JPGThe popular perception is that they are marginal in shorter forms, as opposed to the longest version, wherein the task of picking 20 wickets automatically amplifies their centrality. It’s not an entirely flawed or hollow perception, given the batsman-centricism of T20Is and ODIs in the subcontinent. The last 13 completed ODIs in the country have seen nine 300-plus totals, two individual double hundreds, a score of 359 being chased in 43.3 overs. All three Man of the Series in the last three series were batsmen, and with the exception of Mohammad Shami, against the Caribbeans in Delhi, batsmen have hegemonised hoarding Man of the Match cheques.

A glance at the ODI venues for the series suggest the script wouldn’t be dissimilar. Barring Kanpur, all other stadiums have the reputation of serving up run-feasts Indore averages 298 per innings. In the only ODI thus far in Rajkot, both sides managed 300-plus totals. Mumbai and Chennai too have consistently produced totals in excess of 250. The inaugural T20 International in Dharamsala could be a portent on how the surfaces for the limited-over formats could behave.

So the bowlers, especially the pacers, no matter how pedigreed they be, might run into belters that effectively nullify their potency. “If you bowl with discipline and aggression and not be predictable you can work around the batsmen. South Africa have a potent bowling attack, especially Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn. Both have tremendous experience and expertise in these conditions,” said former India pacer Venkatesh Prasad.

Morkel.jpgTheir individual and combined thre­at will be far more pronounced in Tests. If Steyn performs like the number one Test bowler in the world that he is, there can be few arguments against South Africa not asserting their supremacy in the subcontinent. For the stat-pickers, he has plucked 26 wickets in the country at an average of 20.23, better than any other pacer who has played five or more Tests in the country in this century. Suffice it to say that South Africa invariably win when he strikes; inversely when he doesn’t, they lose or draw. The Proteas have won 42 of the 80 Tests he has played, wherein he has rattled out 282 wickets at 16.09. In the 18 matches they have lost, his average flutters to 34.18.

But the bare stats wouldn’t replicate the visceral thrill of a roused Steyn generating pace and terror, as he did in his visits to Ahmedabad and Nagpur, in 2008 and 2010 respectively. No fast bowler — Mitchell Johnson comes close — makes better use of what he has in order to intimidate batsmen. It’s as though he not only wants to dismiss him, but also wants to embarrass him, and batsmen often concede the feeling that they’d be better off in the confines of dressing room than facing the ordeal in the middle.

His skills are precise and subtle; the outswinger alone can wreak havoc, especially considering that six of India’s top seven are right-handers. The right-hander is conditioned to work it through the midwicket because it lands on the line of the stumps — and he ends up groping at air or edging to the wicketkeeper and the slips. More than one-third of Steyn’s victims have departed this way. “This would be a real test for the Indian batsmen. They have to be disciplined in judging which ball to leave and which not to. But most of them have been on the road for a while. So they would know how to deal with quality pace and bounce. Patience and application will be key,” reckoned former India batsman Pravin Amre.

Reverse swing, and the ball gets abrade sooner than it gets is most other places, is another weapon that could be lethal in these conditions. “Reverse swing will play a major role in the series. Both Steyn and Morkel are quite adept at making the ball reverse and at good pace,” said Prasad.

In comparison with Steyn, Morkel’s skills are cruder. If Steyn uses the ball as a scalpel, Morkel wields it like an ax, barraging batsmen with bouncers before he slips in his stock ball—the devious inswinger, which has been concerning India’s middle order batsmen of late. But at the same time, he can be erratic at times, as his numbers (average of 29.66 and strike rate of 56.92) suggest. But in tandem with Steyn, the pair can disarrange most equipped batting line-ups in the world, and they have racked up 507 wickets in 60 Tests, the eighth most successful duo in Tests. “To me, he is a bigger threat than Steyn because he gets steep bounce, irrespective of the nature of the wicket. On a slightly up and down wicket, he could run through sides in little time,” Prasad pointed out.

Conversely, the CVs of their Indian counterparts are much less embellished. But a re-tooled Ishant Sharma offers hope. “What I have always felt was that he lacked a little bit of confidence. But now he looks extremely confident. He should be doing exactly what he has been doing in the Sri Lanka series. Maybe, he can mix up his lengths a little bit more, like he can occasionally bowl fuller so that he doesn’t become predictable,” he elaborated.

The difference between the two countries is that the home side has a proven spinner, and an influence over the preparation of Test pitches, making Ravichandran Ashwin the second most important man in this series. If Ashwin bowls with same unflagging proficiency as he had this year, South Africa’s batsmen would be in for a torrid time, but it’s hard to foresee them folding up like the Australians the year before. Not with the likes of AB de Villiers,. Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis around. “He was fantastic against Sri Lanka and if he bowls like that he will be the biggest threat for South Africa. Ashwin against Amla and De Villiers will be an absorbing contest. Equally important is how other middle-order batsmen negotiate him. Not just Ashwin, Mishra too is dangerous,” confided former South Africa batsman Jonty Rhodes.

The tourists have packed their side with three spinners, the most they have carried to the subcontinent. But that’s not a sign of richer, rather desperation, wagering that at least one of them would suddenly blossom. Imran Tahir is the most experienced of the troika, and a lot of them deem he has the necessary skill-set to flourish, but he is far from evoking sleepless nights with video analysts decoding his variations. “He is extremely effective in T20s and ODIs, but in Tests if he doesn’t get early wickets he can be a little expensive. Also, he should get carried with the assistance he gets from the wicket,” Rhodes said.

Steyn or Ashwin, Morkel or Ishant—individually or collectively, they could determine the mood of the Indian winter. As for limelight hogging, don’t look beyond the heavyweight prizefighters—De Villiers and Kohli.

India vs South Africa

5 with a Point to Prove

MS Dhoni

msd.jpgDhoni is drawing a lot of attention in the ongoing T20 series, but unfortunately, not just for his stellar limited-over record as captain and player. The 1-2 loss against Bangladesh under him reportedly did not go down well with the new BCCI setup, even as Virat Kohli, espousing an ‘aggressive brand’ of cricket, led India to a rare series win in Sri Lanka. With bat too, his strike rates are not what they used to be, probably due to age. He needs results, but freed of the exertions of Test cricket, a more dangerous Dhoni could emerge.

Cheteshwar Pujara

Out of the XI after a string of below-par scores, the Saurashtra batsman roared back with a century in Sri Lanka as opener. Isn’t fully assured of a spot in the XI,  though his numbers in India — 1279 runs at 75.23 in 12 matches — could tilt the balance in his favour.

Rohit Sharma

Had a promising start to his Test career, but form has since tapered off in the format. On a roller-coaster Sri Lanka tour,  made a couple of crucial half-centuries after a bad start and dropping down to No 5. Will look to make an impact at home. Failed in Bangladesh ODIs after a decent World Cup.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar

The swing bowler has been criticised for lack of pace and penetration, but as his ODI and T20I economy rates of 4.55 and 6.17 testify, he is a canny operator in this era of big bats and fielding restrictions. After spending the World Cup in the bench, came out guns blazing the IPL, as Sunrisers skipper David Warner showed no hesitation in using in death overs. With Shami absent, Bhuvneshwar will hope to lead the attack.

Axar Patel

Has a crucial season ahead of him. Burst onto the stage in IPL 2014 with stump-to-stump bowling and handy batting, before replacing Ravindra Jadeja when the latter was injured. Was miserly, and was went to World Cup only warm the bench. Didn’t do well in the IPL that followed, but impressed in the recent A series against South Africa, picking up 10 wickets including a five-wicket haul in a four-day match.


Leading Men

Virat Kohli vs AB de Villiers

The Royal Challengers Bangalore teammates will hold the key to their respective batting. The South Africa ODI skipper is arguably the best in the world and certainly, the most feared. After a rewarding World Cup and IPL, he will want to make a mark on this marquee series, and he is no stranger to the conditions either. Meanwhile, the Delhi dasher will be eager to renew hostilities with Dale Steyn & Co. His pugnacious century on a green Wanderers wicket in 2013, followed by a 96 in the second innings, is still fresh in memory.

Pace Setters

Steyn.jpgDale Steyn vs Ishant Sharma

Widely considered the best of his generation, the fiery South African can win games single-handedly. Famously demolished the Indians in 2008 and 2010. Though he underperformed in the World Cup, will still be a huge threat. Ishant is coming off a successful series against Sri Lanka. Banned from the first Test, his conduct will be under scrutiny as well.

Spinning Success

R Aswhin vs Imran Tahir

Ashwin is on a high after Sri Lanka. He dismissed Kumar Sangakkara on all four innings and troubled all opposition batsmen. Leg-spinner Imran Tahir, on the other hand, has been in superb form in limited over late. Largely owes success to aggression, but will be under pressure if in the Test series.


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