The key for South Africa that day was taking early wickets and not suffering early blows themselves when batting. India lost five wickets in the first 12 overs of their innings, which meant even a fiery 70-ball century from Yusuf Pathan could not save them; South Africa, in contrast, were 65 for one after 12 overs and Hashim Amla and Morne van Wyk extended that second-wicket partnership to 113.
And both sides seem to be in agreement that early wickets will once again be crucial when the two teams meet in the opening match of the 2013 series – the so-called “Pink” ODI – at the Wanderers today. Incidentally, India pipped South Africa by one run when the teams last met in Johannesburg, in the second game of that 2011 series.
“India certainly don’t have the best attack in the world, but conditions will assist them. But we definitely feel that it’s an area we can exploit, but we have to do the hard yards first and keep wickets in hand. We can’t lose wickets up front.
“The new ball will play a big role, we need to look after our wickets and have a lot in hand for the last 10-15 overs. The toss doesn’t matter, the pitch will probably stay the same through the 100 overs, and whatever we do first, we must do well,” South Africa captain AB de Villiers said on Wednesday.
India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni was thinking the same thing.
“With two new balls, conditions are going to be slightly in favour of the fast bowlers, but what’s important is how you get to the last 10 overs, when you can give yourself something to defend.
“We’d like the South African batsmen to continue with the same recent form, but we will work on our strengths. If you don’t have bowlers who can bowl at 145-150km/h, then there’s no point thinking about exploiting the pace and bounce. But we do have swing bowlers and they will look to take early wickets.
“If you have wickets in hand, 80% of the time you can then score good runs in the last 10 overs. That doesn’t only work in the sub-continent; in fact, if the pitch has good pace and bounce then you can really add to your score with wickets in hand,” Dhoni said.
South Africa has an abundance of options when it comes to wicket-taking pace bowlers and they could well select five seamers and a spinner, with both Jacques Kallis and Ryan McLaren playing as all-rounders.
Dale Steyn is, of course, the most lethal fast bowler in the world, while Lonwabo Tsotsobe has proven his ability to strike up front as well.
South Africa has a left-arm swing bowler available to them in Wayne Parnell, while Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel are also in the mix.
Philander has a wonderful ability to seam the ball on most surfaces and a well-grassed Wanderers pitch should be right up his street. But unfortunately the world’s second-ranked Test bowler has a shoulder injury and De Villiers said his participation today is in doubt.
“Vernon is very skilful, especially when conditions allow him to show his stuff. He’s not a big swinger of the ball, but he definitely gets it to talk off the surface. But he did fall on his shoulder this week, so unfortunately he’s only 50/50 for the game,” De Villiers said.
It is spin that has caused South Africa the most problems recently and India has five slow bowlers available to them in their probable line-up: offie Ravichandran Ashwin and left-arm orthodox Ravindra Jadeja are the frontliners, while Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and Rohit Sharma have taken 143 ODI wickets between them.
But the Indian pacemen are also going to have to produce the goods in conditions that should help them, and the world champions’ fast bowling cupboard has seldom been as well-stocked with talented youngsters as it is now.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar is a fine swing bowler who has taken 30 wickets in 25 ODIs, while Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami both have strike rates of better than a wicket-per-ODI, while their Test records suggest they are genuine strike bowlers. The pacy Yadav has taken 32 wickets in nine Tests, while Shami, big and strong, has 11 scalps already in just two Tests.
De Villiers widened his eyes and looked almost appalled when it was suggested to him that South Africa, most unusually, would be the underdogs on home turf.
“We obviously have to play well to beat India and we’ll be under pressure at home, with our confidence not as high as it could be after losing the series against Pakistan. But I’m sure we can beat India, I feel we have the skill to counter them here at home.
“Playing against the number one side at the Wanderers is as big as it gets and really knowledgeable commentators might say we’re the underdogs. But there’s no way we’re going to stand back and I know if we play near our full potential then nobody can stop us, especially at home.
“I want good body language and attitude because sub-continent teams have a very bad record in South Africa and we’re not going to stand back. The crowd will also play a big part, it’s always electric here at the Wanderers, and I just feel that we’re better than them at home. I have full confidence that the team is going to show up 100% and put in a good effort,” De Villiers said.
It’s essential that the South African bowlers convert this fighting talk into controlled aggression and remove hard-hitting batsmen such as Shikhar Dhawan, Sharma and Virat Kohli while the ball is still new and moving around, and their feet are still waking up.
If not, India has an abundance of strokeplayers to punish them, including the phenomenal Dhoni down the order.
Dhoni, given India’s history of winning just five of their 25 ODIs in this country, has stressed the importance of claiming a 1-0 lead in the series today.
“We haven’t done well here in the past, but the last time we were here, we had a good opportunity to win the series, but we didn’t cash in. A three-match series becomes difficult if you slip up in the first game, but the guys are quite familiar with the conditions out here now,” Dhoni said.
While acknowledging that experience was needed to come up against the pace, bounce and movement that are a feature of cricket in South Africa, Dhoni said he was confident his batsmen would cope.
“Since I made my debut in 2004, we have toured South Africa quite a few times, with Champions League, Champions Trophy, World T20 and IPL adding to the usual tours. The big challenge is to get used to the pace and bounce, it’s not the same kind of conditions you see in India and it’s more difficult for those who have just made their debuts in international cricket.
“Experience really counts and a lot depends on the pitch and whether the weather is overcast or a bright sunny day,” Dhoni said.
The likely Indian top seven has 1059 ODI caps between them, with Dhawan the only one with less than 30 caps.
But the 27-year-old opener has made a stunning start to his international career, keeping the prolific Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir out of the team. The left-hander has been to these shores before, as recently as August with the India A side, and he made the second highest limited-overs score in history when he thrashed the SA A attack for 248 off 150 balls at the L.C. de Villiers Oval.
The pitch at the Wanderers is likely to be much meaner and quicker than the sluggish winter track at the University of Pretoria, but Dhawan, and the rest of the Indian batsmen, should not be underestimated. DM
*About 6,500 tickets for the game were still available at midday yesterday – bookings can be made at www.ticketpros.co.za
Photo: India’s captain MS Dhoni (R) holds a trophy with South Africa’s captain AB de Villiers ahead of their first One-Day International (ODI) on Thursday. in Johannesburg December 4, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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