November 14, 2005

Welcome to the next level, boys!
India v/s South Africa
By Gaurav Sethi

On their return to international cricket, South Africa first toured India. After a couple of defeats in the one-dayers, the Safs came back strongly in New Delhi - a rookie called Kuiper helped knock off India’s 280 something in a hurry. It appears that this one innings might have set the tone for quite a few India-SA encounters. And over the last decade or so, many of India’s top players have often faltered against South Africa.

Even during Tendulkar’s dream run in the 1990s, the wily Fannie de Villiers repeatedly flummoxed him with the slower one while captain and medium pacer Hansie Cronje often placed a leg slip against Sachin to good effect. Through the years, Alan Donald and Shaun Pollock have laid siege on the Indian top order. So when Rahul Dravid smashed Donald down the ground for six in an ODI, White Lightning struck in all its fury at him. And that particular six became the talking point in all inebriated cricketing circles. It didn’t matter that India lost the game – the Wall had struck lightning after all!

Even though today the likes of Donald, de Villiers and Kuiper have retired, the Safs have never been short of tormentors. Imagine a spinless wonder like Nickie Boje has made merry against the Indian batsmen. It must be some relief then, that Boje is not part of the touring team or for that matter, nor is Gibbs. Long live the match fixing investigation!

India however, will need much more than police inspectors to stop South Africa. After losing 10 consecutive games, the Safs have gone on to win 16 out of 18 one-day games – with a 4-0 series win against New Zealand only recently. By the way, these are the very same Kiwis who blew India apart in Zimbabwe thanks to Shane Bond’s 90 mph heroics.

Somehow Bond didn’t do much against South Africa. Justin Kemp, (a timely replacement for Lance Klusener) took care of Bond and the rest of the Kiwi firing squad. In fact, Kemp like our own Dhony-boy, also loves to finish matches with Godzilla sized sixes. There’s also Andrew Hall, who like Kemp, is part of a new breed of all-purpose cricketers who can bat big and bowl that elusive slog over length.

But what typifies the hostility of this new South African bunch is the no hold’s barred Andre Nel, who on a good-day makes Glenn McGrath look cute. Nel is the type of fast bowler who is in your face literally. His body language and facial expressions, it appears, are a graphic extension of the captain, Graeme Smith’s aggressive new strategy to take no prisoners. When twisted and at its menacing best, Nel’s face conveys terrible stuff, most of which is unprintable. (A sampler would be something like the infamous McGrath-Sarwan altercation.) Credence to Nel’s ability as a top bowler is the regularity with which he has been getting a certain Brian Charles Lara out off late.

Not to be outdone by anyone is Makhaya Ntini, the babbler – Afrikaans is his weapon of choice, and when not bowling, he’s chirpier than any wicket keeper in the world. Of much greater threat though, are his fierce incoming deliveries that he bowls from wide of the crease. Today, Ntini is today on top of his game, replacing Shaun Pollock as the South African spearhead.

The new stars aside, South Africa looks like a top team when Jacque Kallis comes off with the bat. Kallis has the ability to hold the batting together, as he switches styles - from an impenetrable Dravid to a silky smooth Sachin to a destructive Sehwag, all in the course of one innings. That Kallis can bowl some nagging outswingers is an added bonus.

India will still have to contend with Pollock’s boringly repetitive on and around off-stump accuracy; plus Charl Langeveldt, the death-bowling specialist. Also, SA will have far greater pace options – Nel, Ntini, Pollock and Langeveldt should be four sure shot starters, where as Kallis and Kemp will bowl a few as well. Andrew Hall might come into play as super-sub, which will give the Safs as many seven bowling options. There may not be any front line spinner – possible spin options include Johan Botha (who started off as a medium pacer and now emulates Bajji), Justin Ontong (a batsman who made the switch to offspin) and Robin Peterson, apart from part-timers Smith and Prince.

As for team India, they’ve just received a mega Diwali bonus. Coming off a cracking 6-1 series win against Sri Lanka, India is in the right frame to take on another cricket superpower. Compared to Sri Lanka though, South Africa has a battery of younger, fitter and stronger pacers i.e. broader shoulders and bigger, meaner units. The two Ns (Nel & Ntini) will look to cramp the two Ss (Sachin & Sehwag) by bowling fast, short, into the body, possibly targeting the rib cage – a bodyline of sorts. That the margin of error will be much smaller on Indian wickets than back home in Johannesburg, should make for gripping cricket.

South Africa’s real test will be against the Indian spinners who should be more effective bowling in tandem, than they have been in a long time. For one, playing Murali Kartick in more games than not (v/s Sri Lanka) will pay some dividend. Better still, Murali was persevered with in spite of being targeted by the Lankans. And best of all, he bowled along with a highly effective Harbajjan Singh. It finally does appear that India is looking to develop a spin duo of sorts, and preparing for life beyond Kumble, at least in the one-day format.

So, one-sided as the Sri Lanka series has been, it’s been a blessing for India to experiment and get new strategies in place for the next level of competition. Game’s on. Let’s play, boys.

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