Slow-starting India can’t be written off

The last time India arrived in South Africa as the No 1-ranked team in the world, they had a local hero as their coach. Gary Kirsten wanted to leave nothing to chance as India sought to correct the perception that they could only perform in their own backyard. He and several of the Test specialists arrived 10 days before the first Test at Centurion. And though there was no warm-up game, they had intensive training sessions at Kirsten’s academy in Cape Town before heading to the Highveld.

On an opening day disrupted by rain, they were bowled out for just 136. South Africa, with Jacques Kallis scoring his first double century, won by an innings, despite a heroic rearguard attempt from Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni. The 100 he scored was Tendulkar’s 50th in Tests, and the reactions after the match spoke volumes about India’s myopic obsession with individual landmarks.

As Graeme Smith and Kallis fronted up to the microphones, the first four questions were all about Tendulkar. Kallis frowned. Smith decided to make a joke of it, asking the reporter: “You really like Sachin, don’t you?”

After the loss, in addition to the Tendulkar hosannas, there were the usual doomsday scenarios and reams written about India’s inability to cope in challenging conditions. The team kept its own counsel and didn’t say a word. They went to Durban and a pitch greener than most Indian outfields, and were bowled out for 205 and 228.

This, mind you, was with the most fêted batting order in India’s cricket history. Sourav Ganguly had gone, but Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were all still around, and in prime form. This time, the knives back home were sheathed because South Africa, boasting an awesome line-up of their own, managed only 346 across their two innings.

The difference was Laxman, who crafted a sublime second-innings 96 on a pitch where no one else on either side went past 40. Statistically, he came nowhere close to Tendulkar and Dravid, but no one did more to script turnarounds in matches where India seemed down for the count.

I still recall bumping into him after the press conferences were over at the end of the Kingsmead Test. I asked him whether he and the team had been aware of what had been said about them back home after Centurion. “Flat-track bullies” was among the kinder jibes. Laxman just smiled, and said that they were too far from home to bother with Indian newspapers and television channels.

You can bet that Virat Kohli and his side are not spending too much time on social media right now, catching up with the thousands of unkind slights that have been sent their way after the Cape Town loss. Even the saner commentary has focused on nonfactors such as the lack of a warm-up game before Newlands.

As someone who has been on the cricket beat for a while, I’ve seen warm-ups gradually become utterly irrelevant. Kohli is bang on when he says such a game would have been a complete waste of time. These days, no home board makes an effort to stage a proper warm-up. Kohli and team would most likely have pitted their wits against a ragtag bunch of provincial cricketers, on a pitch that bore absolutely no resemblance to the Newlands one on which they tallied just 209 and 135.

This is not to have a go at Cricket South Africa (CSA). Every other board behaves in the same way. England had several warm-up games before the Ashes. Google was your best friend as you tried to find out basic information about the players they went up against. Most were that obscure. And needless to say, the conditions were nothing like what greeted them at the Woolloongabba in November.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when even the hosts saw warm-up games as the ideal opportunity to test upcoming stars against international opposition, and land a psychological blow or two in the process. Tendulkar famously played for Mumbai against the Australians in 1998, carting Shane Warne to all parts on his way to a double hundred. In the series that followed, he scored two centuries and dominated Warne as India won 2-1.

When India toured South Africa in 2006-2007, they went to Potchefstroom for a warm-up game against “the rest of South Africa”. They won, but not before being pushed by a bowling attack that included a young Morné Morkel, Nantie Hayward, Alfonso Thomas, Friedel de Wet and Paul Adams. That they then upset South Africa at the Wanderers had much to do with their workout in North West province.

There was no way CSA was going to play Lungi Ngidi or Duanne Olivier in a warm-up match in 2018, and India’s refusal to waste time on B-listers was perfectly understandable.

“We were very well prepared,” said Kohli after the Newlands game. “I don’t think we felt any lack of preparation. Even they [South Africa] got out for 130 in the second innings, and they play here all the time. It was a wicket where things were happening every day. We let ourselves down with the bat, that’s for sure. Losing wickets in bunches never helps in winning Tests or consolidating your position. [A target of] 208 felt chaseable, but we needed someone to go out there and get 75 or 80 and not 25 or 30.”

Kohli’s candour is a refreshing departure from the inanities that many international cricketers now specialise in, and it wasn’t just for the sake of appearances. The Indians stayed at the ground till nearly sundown for a thorough debriefing on what had gone wrong, especially with the top-order batting. Cheteshwar Pujara, with 26 in the first innings, and Kohli, with 28 in the second, were the top scorers, and you don’t win Tests with such meagre returns.

Ravi Shastri, India’s coach, played 80 Tests across 13 years and then spent two decades on the road as a broadcaster. He knows that India have often been slow starters. He was still a teenager when a hamstrung Kapil Dev bowled an immaculate spell to defend a target of just 143 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. In England in 2007, rain and bad light saved them at Lord’s before they went to Trent Bridge, and Zaheer Khan — incensed by jellybeans being thrown his way when he batted — destroyed England with the ball.

They arrived in Perth in January 2008 2-0 down against Ricky Ponting’s all-conquering side — 16 wins on the bounce — and were greeted by the news that Australia were about to unleash Shaun Tait, the Wild Thing, in an attack that already boasted Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Clark. Tait went wicketless and India won by 72 runs.

South Africa remain prohibitive favourites to clinch the series at Centurion, but India’s bowlers have already shown that they can do some damage on a lively deck.

The key to the rest of the series could well be how quickly the batsmen can rebound from the beating they got in Cape Town. Rohit Sharma averages 25 away from home, and Shikhar Dhawan has one significant score from eight Tests in the southern hemisphere. Otherwise, this is as strong a line-up as India can field.

Not for the first time, the onus will be on Kohli to lead the way.

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