Team India’s Protean challenge
The two seasons in which Greg Chappell coached India are now seen as winters of discontent. But for one bad day, however, his legacy might have been so very different. The first Test series win in England, in the summer of 1971, is still considered one of Indian cricket’s greatest achievements, more so because England were then the best team in the world. But 70 years after first touring Australia, and a quarter-century after becoming the first side to play in post-apartheid South Africa, India have yet to win a series in either country. To Chappell, and Rahul Dravid, then captain, should have gone that glory.
At Cape Town in January 2007, with the series all square at 1-1, India decided to demote the out-of-form Virender Sehwag and open with Dinesh Karthik alongside Wasim Jaffer. They added 153, and at one point on the second day, India were 395 for 5. Sehwag, batting at No.7, was clattering the bowling along with the recalled Sourav Ganguly, and Graeme Smith, South Africa’s captain, looked lost for answers.
Then, Sehwag played a reckless stroke and, within minutes, India collapsed to 414 all out. Still, the bowlers did well enough to earn a 41-run lead. All India needed was to bat for most of the fourth day and set South Africa a stiff target on a wearing pitch. Instead, their two most revered batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar and Dravid, disappeared into a defensive shell. Paul Harris, a lanky left-arm spinner with a limited repertoire, was allowed to dictate terms as though he were Hedley Verity or Bishan Singh Bedi.
Neither batsman could emerge from the rut, and with India around 50 runs short, South Africa gutsed out a five-wicket win. To exacerbate India’s plight, Munaf Patel, who had assured the team management that he was fit to play as third seamer, limped through all of one over in the second innings. After the end-of-series presentations, a relieved Smith spoke to the media. Not a single Indian player turned up. Instead, a visibly irate Chappell had to front up to the microphones.
Four years later, India again arrived at Newlands, in the shadow of Table Mountain, with a series to win. Thrashed by an innings in Centurion, they had rebounded magnificently to win in Durban, with V.V.S. Laxman playing one of the all-time great innings—96 on a pitch where no one else crossed 40. Dale Steyn bowled like a zephyr in Cape Town, and his tussle with Tendulkar, who made a last and memorable Test hundred, will never be forgotten by those who watched it.
Tendulkar’s epic gave India a two-run lead, and they reduced South Africa to 130 for 6 in their second innings. But as in 2006, the bowlers ran out of puff, and a rearguard action ensured that South Africa wouldn’t lose the series. In 2013, by which time Tendulkar had retired, magnificent centuries from Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara got India into an outstanding position at The Wanderers, where S. Sreesanth’s immaculate seam bowling (8 for 99) had inspired a victory in 2006. But again, India’s lack of bowling teeth was exposed as South Africa nearly pulled off a 458-run chase.
Across six tours, India have won only two of 17 Tests, losing eight. What then makes the team management so confident that this touring party will buck that depressing trend and do what the sides led by Dravid and M.S. Dhoni couldn’t? The answer lies in one word: pace. In 1996-97, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad were operating at their peak. A decade later, the same could be said of Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth. On both occasions, however, India’s hopes were stymied by the lack of pace-bowling support.
Now, Kohli and Ravi Shastri, the coach, are spoilt for choice. Mohammed Shami, who combines genuine pace with the ability to move the ball in the air and off the pitch, should share the new ball with Ishant Sharma, whose height and accuracy make him an awkward proposition on bouncy pitches. In swing-friendly conditions, the greatly improved Bhuvneshwar Kumar comes in. If it’s skiddy, raw pace that is needed, Umesh Yadav can step up. Hardik Pandya, who will play as the all-rounder, can also nudge the speed gun past 140 kmph.
But it’s the uncapped Jasprit Bumrah who could yet prove an inspired left-field pick. Off the most awkward of actions, he can generate real speed, and possesses a devastating yorker as well as clever changes of pace honed in the white-ball matches. Whichever trio India pick, with R. Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja playing as the lone spinner, they will not want for options. The teams of the past had no such luxury.
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