Published on January 3rd, 2018 | by Rohit Sankar0
South African openers and a tough barrier India need to uncork
“By piling up runs at will, Elgar and Markram have formed a shield that protects the even stronger middle-order and India’s task is virtually cut out”.
The story of Jimmy Cook
A quarter of a century ago, when South Africa returned from Apartheid, a racial discrimination against its black population, India was the first to tour the Rainbow Nation. South Africa was all white in terms of cricket until 1970 when they were out of ICC. They lost a generation of fabulous, enthralling cricketers but returned in 1992 as a force to reckon with in cricket.
The cream of the country’s talent might have vanished but India had a daunting task on green tracks against eleven unknown players. Rightly, the series opener was at Durban where a large chunk of Indian population resided.
Jimmy Cook, father of recently capped South African opener, Stephen Cook, was the Proteas opener that day alongside the sturdy Andrew Hudson. The match is more remembered for Omar Henry, South Africa’s first black player and oldest debutant for them, making an appearance in the eleven but something extraordinary transpired that day at Durban.
At 39, Jimmy Cook was making his Test debut and was dismissed by Kapil Dev off the first ball of the Test match and series. Cook was, at the time, the first batsman to be dismissed on the first ball of his debut Test match. As much as it was rare, it was peculiar that India’s first tour of a country in which they struggled for the next 25 years started off on a pompous note.
25 years later……..
It’s 2018 and India’s ties with South Africa isn’t as friendly as before, not least because of Haroon Lorgat, the match-fixing saga of 2000-01 or the Andre Nel- Sreesanth face-off, but also because of a competitive history between the two nations on the field.
Home dominance has been a feature of Test matches between these two countries. Each of them have an exemplary record over the other at home, a sign that, in spite of all the courtship that blossomed between the two vastly different countries, they haven’t quite got accustomed to the conditions in either place.
The last time South Africa toured India – in 2015 – the dust bowls greeted them and a 3-0 marauding followed. Not even the giant bats or dogged minds of Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers could keep the deadly duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja at bay.
It is revenge time and India, on the back of a long home season, is the no.1 Test side, but that means little in this country. India have a deplorable record here and have traditionally struggled against the Proteas in their backyard. Add in the revenge factor and you are in for some real battering.
But India are possibly better equipped this time. The Jadeja – Ashwin pattern may not work here but they have a battery of decent seamers and South Africa, for once, could be heavily tested at home.
When they toured India in 2015, they tried two major opening combinations – Dean Elgar & Stiaan Van Zyl, Dean Elgar & Temba Bavuma – and returned with averages of 11.25 and 20.50. The debacle of the openers meant the likes of du Plessis, Amla and de Villiers were out to the middle earlier than they would have liked. On dry, dead wickets it does not matter much, but here in South Africa, it is a totally different story.
Traditionally, the role of opening batsmen was to take the sheen off the new ball and give the more powerful middle-order bright sun, baked pitch and a tarnished ball to bat against. The quintessential meaning of opening the batting might have turned the moment Virender Sehwag walked out to open for India in Tests but the fact remains.
If the openers take the shine off the new ball and weather the early storm in tough batting conditions, a strong middle-order, like the one Proteas boast of, appears all the more intimidating.
The solid combination of Elgar and Markram
At the start of 2017, things weren’t rosy for South Africa. Of course, Dean Elgar was a beast of a find to replace Graeme Smith at the top but they were clueless as to who would partner him. Alviro Petersen, Stiaan Van Zyl, Stephen Cook, Heino Kuhn and Theunis de Bruyn had all tried their luck and failed.
The toss eventually fell upon Aiden Markram, the young superstar, who had led South Africa to a maiden World Cup title (an under-19 World Cup win in 2014). Markram is in every sense of the word a modern-day opener. He has all the shots in the book and isn’t afraid to reveal his wide range quite early, but the youngster also has a tough head on his shoulders. He knows the grit-game and isn’t one to throw away his wicket.
In Markram, South Africa found everything they needed to compliment Dean Elgar with. The results were stupendous – although it came against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe – as the duo put on a hundred stand, a double century stand and a half-century stand in four innings together.
There was the run-out mishap on Markram’s debut innings but otherwise, the pair became an instant hit. Elgar would do the old school opener’s role – play out the new ball, leave as many balls and play the long innings – while Markram would play his shots, remain sturdy and set the game up for the middle-order. It worked wonders.
It made Hashim Amla look double the size and Quinton de Kock even more effective than Adam Gilchrist, who South Africa ultimately want him to be. The role of openers can be such. On batting wickets, which South Africa lay out of late, the early seam and swing present the bowlers with a huge chance to bring the stronger middle-order batsmen in early.
By piling up runs at will, Elgar and Markram have formed a shield that protects the even stronger middle-order and India’s task is virtually cut out. They have Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami, all pretty good seamers on their day, but if they cannot barge into South Africa’s belly early in the Tests, India can expect little to change of their record in South Africa. It is Elgar – Markram and their extraordinary bond in such a short period of time that has made South Africa an even stronger force than ever at home.