Test cricket came alive when India played the first Test of the three-match series against South Africa in Newlands, Cape Town, between January 5 and January 8. The weather and wicket made the game exciting and enjoyable. Bowlers from both sides ‘made the ball talk.’ There was movement in the air, off the wicket and with a bit of bounce to assist the bowlers, the batsmen were tested both technically and mentally. It was Test cricket at its best, especially with watching a batsman leave a ball becoming as exciting as him playing a shot.
South Africa finally came out as the winner, but India had its own moments. Unfortunately, the Indian team came across AB de Villiers, whose knocks of 65 in the first innings and 35 in the second essay gave the home team enough runs to bowl India out. He also made the two catches he took in the slips look simple and regimental. India, in the next two Tests, will have to somehow find a solution to dismiss AB de Villiers early.
The Indian fast bowlers bowled magnificently. There were concerns over their ability to settle down with the Kookaburra ball in conditions quite different from home. However, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, debutant Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya bowled exceedingly well and this is precisely why one feels that India should be able to crawl back into the series.
India’s overseas performance has always raised concerns. People were hoping that India would carry the same momentum shown on home soil into the first Test in Cape Town, despite getting little time to get acclimatised to the conditions. A team, however great it maybe, needs time to familiarise itself with the surroundings. This is where the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has faltered in finalising the tour itinerary. One hopes that a bitter lesson has been learnt and that in tours to England and Australia later this year, this error will not be repeated. The board must give the Test playing cricketers enough time to get their techniques sorted out.
The present Indian batting line-up should have easily chased down the 208-run target in the first Test, even though the conditions favoured the bowlers. The trio of Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada bowled brilliantly, but the Indian batsmen too were tentative in their defense and stroke-play, solely because they tried to find their feet in conditions they were not accustomed to. The only Indian batsman with a positive attitude on the ground was Hardik Pandya. He decided to take the aggressive route, which proved very effective. However, it would be too much to expect the top five batsmen to bat in that cavalier manner.
The South African batting has also shown to have a chink in its armour. They were bowled out for 135 in the second innings and apart from AB de Villiers, all their batsmen looked vulnerable against the Indian attack.
The second Test at the Centurion starting January 13 should be another absorbing encounter. Although there is this predictable demand by the media as well as the fans to replace Shikhar Dhawan with KL Rahul and include Ajinkya Rahane in place of Rohit Sharma, I will be very surprised if the Indian think tank decides to do so. A change would put a question mark on their initial selection and both Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri are not individuals who would be swayed so easily from their set game plan. Both Dhawan and Sharma are good stroke players and it would be unfair to drop them for just one failure.
Sharma is in the mould of David Warner and Virendra Sehwag. His strength is his ability to play shots and that’s precisely what he should be doing when he goes out to bat next. The pressure to prove that he has the technique and ability to play well overseas is resulting in curtailing his natural stroke play. He needs to back himself and think positively.
One feels sorry for Rahane, but with Pandya developing into a genuine fast bowling all-rounder and Ravichandran Ashwin being the lone spinner, it becomes difficult for him to find a place in the playing eleven.
The Indian team in the last Test looked very charged up and determined. They left South Africa worried and one hopes that the positive, aggressive attitude of the Indian team continues in the same way. India as the number one Test side will not succumb easily under its highly charged-up captain. The present lot will not perish without a fight. The bowlers have done a splendid job in the first Test. It’s now time for the batsmen to come good.
The author is a former India cricketer