India already on back foot

2010-12-08 00:00

SOUTH AFRICA and current ICC Test titleholders India step into the ring in just over a week’s time. They begin the first bout of their three Test series at Centurion. For now the focus is on preparation and in this regard India already appear to be on the back foot.

Gary Kirsten is already back “home” in Cape Town with some of his Indian charges, but the remainder have had to stay behind to complete the one-day series against New Zealand. With India’s itinerary jam-packed there is precious little time for Kirsten’s men to adjust to the challenging South African conditions. Just a week at Kirsten’s Cricket Academy, based at Claremont Cricket Club, seems a little inadequate when compared with England’s more lengthy preparation for the Ashes in Australia.

South Africa might be home from home for India’s coach, but it’s foreign territory for his cricketers. The fact that India have won just one of their last 12 Test matches played here highlights what a tough tour this is for them. Many of the Indian batsmen have been in fine form at home, but SA’s bouncy wickets can be a cruel leveller.

Playing on Indian pitches, where the ball hardly gets above bale height, is a far cry from facing deadly deliveries that zip past at head height and carry metres to the keeper. Many an Indian batsman has had to throw in the towel on South African soil.

India’s preparation might not be ideal, but if anyone knows how to contend with fast bowlers on the pacey wickets of SA, Gary Kirsten does. His Test record in SA speaks for itself and under his direction India have moved to the top of the world Test rankings. India come to SA on the back of two successful home series and Kirsten will be keen to build on his team’s confidence.

Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, who both impressed on the flat pitches of Dubai, will be key for SA. You can be sure these pacemen will not be pulling their punches. Steyn’s swing and pace combined with Morkel’s bounce will be a formidable combination.

The current Ashes series has highlighted the importance of having a spinner who is able to take wickets and keep up an end. Swann has done this superbly for England and has lightened the load for his seamers in the process. In stark contrast, Australian spinner Xavier Doherty battled at one end, leaving his seamers having to bowl too many overs and making them far less effective.

In Paul Harris, the Proteas do not have the biggest turner of the ball; rather a competitive workhorse who does a great job supporting the fast bowlers and keeping things tidy.

With many factors weighing in SA’s favour, I doubt that this Test series will see India improving on their past record.

With Kirsten in their corner they may have their best chance yet, but in my opinion SA will draw first blood and have India on the ropes for the rest of the series.

• Neil Johnson is a former Natal, WP and Zimbabwe all-rounder who lives and coaches in Pietermaritzburg.

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