Since 1932, India have played 245 Test matches on foreign soil. They have won 45 and lost 106. Eight of these wins have come since 2015—five in Sri Lanka (2015 and 2017) and two in West Indies (2016), in more or less similar sub-continental conditions as experienced at home.
Furthermore, India have won five out of 44 Tests played in Australia, six out of 57 Tests played in England, five out of 23 played in New Zealand and only two out of 17 Tests played in South Africa.
India have only five overseas Test series wins in these countries put together—1971, 1986 and 2007 in England and 1968, 2009 in New Zealand. They have never won a Test series in South Africa or Australia.
Will 2018 be the year that this record changes? Another overseas schedule looms, starting with South Africa—the first Test is on 5 January—and ending Down Under in January 2019. There is no doubt that India’s No.1 Test ranking will be put to true evaluation.
So what can they do to keep their spot on the top of the ladder? They can start by achieving the unprecedented—win a Test series in South Africa.
“As a team, we believe in not looking back at what’s happened in the past. Even as recently as 2013, when as a young team, we only lost 0-1 in South Africa. Instead, we will only look at that result as a learning experience, nothing more, and aim to build on it this time around," said Indian Test vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane, ahead of the team’s departure for Africa last week.
Also read: India’s tour of South Africa: Equal in skills, disadvantaged by history
It is easier said than done. The team might have played on a green-top in Kolkata against Sri Lanka, and hoped to simulate similar conditions in the other two Tests (in Nagpur and Delhi) as well, but things didn’t really pan out according to plan (read flat wickets). The management believes in its own due process and has cancelled the two-day tour game ahead of the first Test in Cape Town, instead opting for a match-wicket net session. It will be a rigorous week of preparation for the Indian team ahead of the big-ticket Friday clash. Will it be enough though?
“A tour game is always preferable to match-wicket preparation because you are in real-time game situations," says Wasim Jaffer, who was part of the 2006 touring squad when India won its first Test (in Johannesburg) on South African soil.
“But of late, touring sides don’t get quality bowling attacks and Test-like wickets to practice on. So this decision can be considered a calculated one in that light," adds Jaffer, who on Monday helped Vidarbha claim their first Ranji Trophy title.
The odd bit is that the Board of Control for Cricket in India scheduled One Day Internationals and Twenty20 internationals against Sri Lanka at home in December, and the three-Test series had preceded them. Perhaps Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri were right in calling for more thought to scheduling, for it leaves the Indian team bereft of any long-form practice ahead of this impending series.
While the likes of Kohli, Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and so on can—and will—hone their skills against Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the nets, would this help to work up the intensity?
“The only plausible disadvantage could be lack of momentum going into the Cape Town Test," said Jaffer. “When you play Test cricket overseas that momentum is the key. If you can get on a run (momentum)—with both bat and ball—early in the series, rather early in the first Test, it can set you rolling for the remainder of the tour. Whether they practise on their own or in a tour game, India has to build up enough momentum in that first Test if they want to make an early impression against South Africa."
Team selection will play a key role. At first look, most of the spots in the playing eleven are already sealed. Rahane has looked unsteady of late, with a poor series against Sri Lanka, but it is incomprehensible that the vice-captain will be dropped for the first Test, never mind Rohit Sharma’s great form. The big question mark for the Indian skipper will be getting the balance right—a pace all-rounder or an extra spinner? Ashwin or Hardik Pandya? Indeed, Ashwin or Jadeja?
“Jadeja knows his strengths well and bowls within his limitations when the wicket is not helpful. Ashwin comes across as an intelligent bowler if the pitch has something in it for him, otherwise he loses track of the situation quickly. In South Africa, it is not going to be easy. He still has to prove that the captain can play him with confidence on good batting tracks," says Maninder Singh, former Indian left-arm spinner.
Also read: India’s tour of South Africa: Excitement has replaced anxiety
Does that mean Jadeja is ahead of Ashwin in the reckoning for a lone spinner in Kohli’s eleven? “Maybe… because in South Africa, we will expect Shami, Ishant, Kumar and Yadav to take wickets. This is a great pace attack and if they can stay fit throughout, they will trouble the opposition irrespective of conditions. The only concern is how quickly they can adjust to the Kookaburra ball without playing a practice game," adds Singh.
In the third Test against Sri Lanka, India dropped three catches in the first innings and it cost them a victory. It raised questions about the constant shuffling of the slip cordon in every series. Pujara, who stood at first slip in two of three Tests against Lanka, admitted that the team management is concerned.
“It is a matter of anticipation. I try to reduce my anticipation time during practice so I can react quicker in real-time match situations," says Rahane, arguably India’s best slip fielder, who inexplicably stands in the gully to the pacers. “This is the best Indian fielding unit in a long time. I don’t think slip catching is a huge problem, but we must work harder. We are aware of it."
The formula is simple. Get some runs, build momentum early, bank on the pace attack to come good, and hold your catches. The question is: Can India tick all the boxes simultaneously in unfamiliar conditions?