GAME PLAN: Play the game, not the names

Jaideep Ghosh

Cricket---South-Africa-teamThis is that time of the year again. The cotton wool clouds drift across the clear blue sky, escorted rapidly across by a breeze that is promising to get a little nippy soon. This heralds winter, and winter is the perfect time for the games we play.

Winter, or autumn, is also the perfect time to set off the cricket calendar, and we already have shades of gold and green splashing across the cricket fields in the northern parts of the nation.

It has been quite a while since India witnessed a top-flight team coming here and playing a long series. The South Africans are here for as long a series as the current calendar permits. A total of 72 days will encompass all formats of international cricket, including first-class games, three T20 Internationals, five One-Day Internationals and four Tests.

The visitors have already played their first match, with India A at the Palam Ground in Delhi, which didn’t go well for them. But like all tours, not much must be read into early results. After all, every player and side needs time to settle.

South Africa always come in with an awesome reputation, and this side isn’t any different. Led by Abraham Benjamin de Villiers, the side comes with an awesome reputation, a fast bowling battery led by Dale Steyn, a batting revolving around Hashim Amla and a side orchestrated by De Villiers, easily one of the most astounding players to play the limited-overs version.

But that said, South Africa frequently aren’t as good on ground as they are on sheets of paper and in people’s minds. The bowling attack is rather monotonous when it comes to the fast bowling, while the spin, led by Imran Tahir’s leg-spin, doesn’t necessarily scare.

Further, the Indian Premier League has more or less ensured that there are no surprises any more in international cricket, at least when it comes to players from South Africa, who have been in the limelight in every chapter of the IPL.

In fact, the real surprises are the new faces in the team. Kagiso Radaba, a strapping 20-year-old fast bowler, is someone the Indians don’t really know. There is also off-break bowler Khaya Zondo, so unknown that it’s difficult to even find a picture.

Facing this lot is, once again, Mahendra Singh Dhoni with his band of new and old stars, as the T20s start off hostilities on October 2 at the Himachal Cricket Association Stadium in Dharamsala, easiest one of the most remarkable venues in India, and the world.

Right now, the focus is on the T20s and ODIs, though the real test is in the aptly-named Tests.

This is where South Africa are really on an ascendancy. Since their return to world cricket in 1992, they have not lost any series to India at home. Even away, India have not been able to put it past their rivals for ten years now.

But history is a study of the past. In fact, this may well be the side that registers a series win after a decade.

Radical changes like Dhoni’s retirement from Tests and Virat Kohli’s promotion as captain has already given India an elusive away series win in Sri Lanka. Granted, Sri Lanka are in the middle of transition, but Indian teams in the past, supposedly way better than the current one, have failed there.

Kohli is transparent in his will to win, a marked difference from Dhoni, who would thrive in mystifying people and at times infuriating them. Speaks volumes in terms of the results too.

India’s quiz now is in who plays and who doesn’t. They lost several players through the series in Sri Lanka — there was an open season on the opening slot as Shikhar Dhawan was injured, then Murali Vijay. Which led to Ajinkya Rahane being shot up the order and fail, while Rohit Sharma was, and always will be, a disaster as No. 3.

But Sharma did well lower down, though this is in no way a balanced batting. Would be a good idea to have it all in order before Steyn and Co. get their act together.

Bowling wins matches. Kohli played five bowlers consistently in Sri Lanka and it paid off. Ishant Sharma would do well if he can keep his hair and temper in control, while Ravichanrdan Ashwin will make the difference between a win and a defeat.

It won’t be a bad idea to throw two, or even three, spinners at the Proteas. That will be fun, depending on where you play.

This one should be fun. South African Test skipper Amla is as understated as Kohli is exuberant. But both are intense competitors and both have the ammunition. This will be one war to witness.

Also, would be quite something if both of them were in form with the bat. Now, that’s a sight I would go miles to see.