Bullring: SA set to face ‘Zak’

Zaheer Khan (Gallo Images)
Zaheer Khan (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Perhaps as much by Indian strife as design, South Africa ought to have a fair idea now of which bowlers the tourists will attempt to fight fire with fire through in the first Test at the Wanderers from next Wednesday.

It will be a surprise if the front-line Indian assault doesn’t come from a three-pronged seam battery of Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan and Mohammed Shami, backed up by the off-spin of Ravichandran Ashwin who is also comfortingly competent as a lower-order batsman.

Frankly, Indian bowling options for the Bullring encounter have arguably narrowed, rather than expanded, after events in the one-day international series where the Proteas ripped their way to a 2-0 triumph with a no-result in the dead-rubber game at Centurion after posting 300-plus ahead of the rain.

As much as certain of the tourists’ batsmen experienced ominous difficulty against South Africa’s lively pace onslaught over the last few days, a few of their bowlers had their egos rather punctured as well.

That may well mean that speedsters Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, for instance, have more or less eliminated themselves from consideration after simply leaking too many runs to Quinton de Kock and others in the ODIs.

Yadav is certainly known to be slippery when the mood grabs him, but he was also walloped for 102 runs over the course of only 15 overs he bowled in two of the limited-overs contests, at an economy rate of almost seven, whilst fresh-faced Kumar’s lone appearance at the very Wanderers, scene of the first Test, saw him progressively lose the plot as he travelled for 68 in nine wicketless overs.

The outcome of all that is that India may pin their hopes on experience for the backbone of their attack next week, especially as the beanpole Sharma came to light nicely before the heavens opened at SuperSport Park.

Ishant, who gave Australia a notable dose of their own hostile medicine in his maiden tour there in 2007/08, has often been a victim of over-bowling subsequently, but the lustre he showed on Wednesday, in bagging praiseworthy figures of 10-1-40-4 (his second best personal haul in 70 ODIs) suggests he is a must for the Bullring where steep bounce may be on offer.

The 34-year-old, left-arm slingshot Khan was not part of the ODI humbling - probably a good factor in his favour? - and is seemingly set to be unleashed after a year-long absence from Tests; his last of 88 caps thus far came against England at Kolkata in early December 2012.

He has been notoriously injury-prone over the years, but has reportedly put in a concerted effort to restore best possible fitness and conditioning in recent months and has played plenty of first-class cricket domestically during October and November, showing encouraging durability and sometimes strike power.

Whether South Africans like it or not, he does have a bit of a historical stranglehold over the Proteas’ captain, Graeme Smith, with some wags likely to suggest that “lbw b Khan” is an outcome simply waiting to happen against the big opener.

That said, “Biff” relishes the smell of gun-smoke as well as any opportunity for retribution or silencing of dissenters, so that particular one-on-one duel should be well worth watching - India will be hoping they can start slowly rotting the South African fish from the proverbial head in the all-too-short Test series.

If Khan is still swinging the new ball - particularly if there is rainy-season cloud cover on the Highveld - and occasionally reversing the old, he ought to still be able to command significant respect from opposition batsmen over the next couple of weeks.

Shami looks as though he will be the intriguing wildcard member of the pace trio; bear in mind that if he plays at the Wanderers it will be only the 23-year-old’s third Test cap after decent showings in the Tendulkar farewell mini-series against limited West Indies recently.

He was runaway leading Indian wicket-grabber in the ODIs against South Africa, with nine at 20.55 and three in each game.

Yes, his economy rate was nothing special at 6.60 but you would almost expect that of a rookie seamer from the Subcontinent having his first international foray on our soil, so his wickets-column success will be regarded as a tick to his name and perhaps a hint of continued productiveness in the Tests.

Indeed, as India chew on the looming Johannesburg date as clear underdogs, they may well wish to recall
how another pretty raw customer, the eccentric Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, a little unexpectedly lit up the
Bullring in his first Test in South Africa in December 2006.

Hardly lacking in attitude and general presence of personality, Sreesanth earned game figures of 8 for 98 then and earned the player-of-the-match mantle as India temporarily nursed a 1-0 lead before South Africa struck back in the next two Tests to snatch away the series.

Can Shami do a “Sree”?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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