NOBODY in international cricket travels better than South Africa do. A team of tough, modest cricketers, they always seem to pack something extra. For, in an era where losing overseas has become the norm, they seem to stare situations in the eye without blinking. Ability is at the core of all achievement but with South Africa there seems something more.
Maybe the combination of steel and modesty, as embodied by Hashim Amla and A.B. de Villiers, is better than arrogance seeking to cover possible inability. Maybe the fact that they live in a society that is changing and where you have to accept the situation and make the most of it is another factor. I must admit I am searching but whatever the answer, South Africa's away numbers are staggering and makes them the only team in world cricket that approaches an away series without being dismissed. (New Zealand might go on to challenge that and they seem to be able to play hard and fair too!)
While a lot of South Africa's success has been built around Amla and de Villiers, their biggest matchwinner is undoubtedly Dale Steyn who has transcended his era to be compared to the greats. In away Tests he has 167 wickets @ 23.24 and a strike rate of 44. But in Asia, long considered to be a fast bowler's nightmare, it gets better; 90 wickets from 33 innings (not Tests!) at an average of 22.33 and a strike rate of 40. Now consider numbers with an old ball (older than 40 overs) and the numbers are scarily good: 18.6 per wicket and one every 36 balls (numbers courtesy of young Dhruv Khaitan at Star Sports). Not only are these numbers staggering, they tell you something about bowling fast on the sub-continent.
We have always argued that the new ball, whether bowled or batted against, isn't the same factor on the sub-continent. Steyn's numbers show that the old ball is, possibly, a far bigger weapon for a fast bowler and that might well dictate a team's bowling strategy. And would therefore have implications for opposition batsmen. While not conceding wickets to the new ball is always critical, it assumes greater significance now because you can't have lower order batsmen, with not enough on the board, having to stand up to reverse swing at pace.
But the key to reverse swing, and indeed to bowling with an old ball, is pace. In recent times, Steyn has looked like he has dropped pace. The speed guns are suggesting that and opposition batsmen are whispering it too. The first Test in Mohali will tell us if that is indeed true or whether, in fact, South Africa have preserved Steyn through the one-day games and left him fresh to go full throttle in the Tests. Sadly, it is very difficult to compare speeds over time because speed guns are not uniform and, in recent times, have given the impression of being kind to bowlers. You can at best use them as a relative measure and so, use your eyes and the batsman's response the old-fashioned way to judge speed and, especially, Steyn.
Luckily for him, he has Morne Morkel for company, a bowler who may not yet have become what some of us thought he would, but who can be extremely dangerous on his day because few bowlers can produce bounce out of benign surfaces like he can. Without a second aggressive option, South Africa could have spent periods between spells from Steyn looking to play a holding game because they still don't have a spinner who can command respect and bowl long overs. That might be the phase where India seek to make progress with the bat though the experience against Moeen Ali suggests pragmatism, even on that front, might be more beneficial.
Having said that, India's batsmen must believe that, in home conditions, they can counter the threat and give their spinners enough time and runs to bowl at. Ravichandran Ashwin is bowling as well as ever, the visitors have rarely enjoyed quality leg spin and on a crumbling wicket, Ravindra Jadeja can be a potent threat. There is much talk from the South African camp about dry pitches, and while pre-match talk is often playing to the gallery, it is clear they are wary of spin. But on dry pitches, India must not give up its own reverse swing options. That is why India's balance will be very interesting to see.
I have little doubt that in days gone by India would have gone in with six batsmen but playing three spinners means you either play five batsmen (a risk against quality opposition) or only one quick bowler.
The advantage for India, in home conditions especially, is that each of the three spinners bats and so a shorter top order will be sought to be compensated for by a more robust lower order. It could well mean that India must choose between Rohit Sharma, who is making batting look stupidly easy in limited overs cricket, and Cheteshwar Pujara who produced a match winning century last time he played for India. There is of course the option of leaving out Shikhar Dhawan but then he has two hundreds in recent times in similar conditions.
Having options is better than not having them but sometimes having too many isn't great either. But it will add to the many things to look forward to in this potentially enthralling contest.
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