India’s shambolic batting in the first One Day International (ODI) at Dharamsala last Sunday would have distracted Virat Kohli from his reverie in idyllic Tuscany where, it was to emerge later, he was getting married to actor Anushka Sharma, his long-time partner.
This was precisely the kind of pitch captain Kohli—and coach Ravi Shastri—had wanted in matches against Sri Lanka as preparation for the tour of South Africa: green-tinged, pacy, with enough “juice" to help lateral movement.
Yet this was just the kind of batting performance the captain-coach would have been dreading. The top order and middle order caved in so badly and swiftly that at one stage, when the score read 27-7, it seemed India would not even cross 50.
It took a courageous and clever—if somewhat fortuitous—65 from Mahendra Singh Dhoni to see India cross the three-figure mark. While this reduced the ignominy somewhat, it was never going to be good enough to stave off defeat.
To highlight the failure of the Indian batting is not to take away credit from the Lankan pace bowlers who exploited the conditions quite superbly. Winning the toss was a huge advantage, but it had to be backed up by testing bowling.
Suranga Lakmal, in particular, was brilliant, tormenting batsmen with late swing and seam movement either way. There wasn’t one Indian player who read him well. All floundered, like fish out of water, jumpy and edgy, playing and missing before succumbing.
Surprisingly, Ajinkya Rahane, among the best technically equipped batsmen in the country, was not in the playing side even though bowler-friendly conditions were evident. While Rahane is now positioned as a back-up opener, to be dogmatic about this is surely flawed.
One setback can’t be reason to get hyper-critical of the team. It may just have been, as I think is the case, a bad day in office. In the next match at Mohali, powered by a staggering third double century by Rohit Sharma, India’s batting was back in roaring form.
All told, however, limited-overs form can’t be mixed up with Tests, which is India’s primary concern as they head to South Africa at the year-end and it would be imprudent to ignore some telltale signals. For instance, it was not only at Dharamsala that India’s much-vaunted batting flopped. On a helpful pitch, in the first innings of the first Test at Kolkata too, Lakmal had run through the top and middle order.
The seeming inability of the Indian batsmen to cope in conditions that help fast bowlers, where pitches also have pace and bounce, would not have been lost on the South Africans. They would have been following the matches against Sri Lanka with keen interest and making notes.
A four-pronged pace attack, comprising Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and a rejuvenated Dale Steyn, awaits India in the three-Test series. This attack has pace, variety and experience. On tailor-made home pitches, it could be fearsome.
The South African tour itinerary presents its own hardships. There is little time for acclimatization. The age of three-four first-class matches preceding the first Test is long past (except in the Ashes), and teams have to be prepared for the stiffest challenge as soon as they arrive.
Even so, just a two-day warm-up match as build-up to the first Test starting 5 January was poor planning. I am personally in agreement with the team management’s decision to settle for training sessions instead.
“Match play" is vital but unless this comes in a first-class game, it is usually bereft of a competitive edge, more so when it is played only over two days. The host country does not field its better players, and there is little to be gained for the visiting team.
That debate, however, is now academic. What is important is for players to adjust quickly any which way. Nine successive series wins have consolidated India’s status as the No.1 Test side, but this must be tempered by the fact that the country has never won a series in South Africa.
This tour coincides with honeymoon time for Kohli, but on the field of play, the Indian captain faces his stiffest challenge yet.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.