“Be it Rohit, Dhawan or even Kohli, all have struggled on the fast and bouncy pitches. En route his 96 in Durban, Rahane had conquered several blows from Steyn four years back”.
In the last two months or so, the cricket fraternity has been occupied with a Test series after another. The Test cricket fever began in November with the Ashes, which got monotonous because England’s failure made it a one-sided affair in the favour of the Australians and then came India’s home series against Sri Lanka, which had its own ups and down before eventually India won it with an ease. With the New Year, 2018, we needed a new start and new challenges in Test cricket to revive the excitement not only for the fans but also for us journalists, who had touched boredom of repeating the same kind of articles. All that was needed was to kickstart the year with some thrilling form of Test cricket.
And who could give us that better than the top two ranked Test sides: Enter, Gandhi-Mandela Test series between India and South Africa.
Prior to Test series between India and South Africa commenced, there was one thing for sure, regardless of how the supposed top-class Indian batting line-up performed, there are two Indian batsmen we could rely on – Cheteshwara Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. However, when India’s XI was announced a few minutes before the toss, a hullabaloo was created as the Indian Vice-Captain Rahane was ignored for a fourth seamer in Hardik Pandya and an in-form Rohit Sharma. Rohit scored an unbeaten 102 and 65 against Sri Lanka in Nagpur and Delhi and was his performance in the net in the last few days had convinced the management that Rohit was ready to deal with the tricky South African conditions in the five-day format.
Meanwhile, Rahane, since India’s series against England in 2016, has scored 617 runs at an average of 26.82 over a period of 14 Tests with the only hundred coming against a below-par Sri Lanka at Pallekele. First, Rahane was ignored for the T20I series and now he has been dropped from the Test side as well. Let’s get some perceptive here. Apart from Sri Lanka and West Indies, India have not toured any superior nation in the last two years or even a bit more. Their previous competitive tour was in Down Under towards the end of 2014. A new team has been built following that tour that has earned tremendous success through India’s journey to reclaiming the No. 1 spot. However, they did that without many hurdles on their way because they played the majority of the matches in their backyard.
This means this South Africa tour is their first litmus test as a top-ranked Test side. The country where India last won a Test in 2010 and have lost five out of their last six series there. Twenty-five years have passed since India’s maiden tour to the Rainbow Nation and they still have not registered a series victory there. Obviously, the hosts will have the physiological edge but this Indian team is perfectly capable of turning tables around. Until you had the choice to assume Rahane and Pujara will certainly give some tough times to the Proteas fancy bowling attack, India’s chances looked optimistic. Rahane might not have a great record at home, but he is India’s man for the overseas tour.
Isn’t Rahane the overseas specialist?
When Rahane began his Test career, in no time comparisons were drawn between him and former Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid. Because, like Dravid, Rahane had begun to deliver away from home. From Australia, England, New Zealand, West Indies and Sri Lanka, he left a mark everywhere he went. He almost had one in South Africa too but unfortunately, he was dismissed for 96 and he ended the 2013 tour with just two fifties. Even then, he managed his average was decent enough to look on his CV.
After four years into Test cricket, Rahane has scored a century everywhere he has played except Bangladesh and South Africa. He averages 53.44 in 24 away Tests and overall, he averages 44.15 in 43 Tests. Out of his nine Test hundreds, six have come away from home. Meanwhile, the Indian Captain Kohli, who averages 50-plus overall in the longest format, the figures drop down to 44.37 when the overseas filter is applied.
When the Indian team prevailed with an out-of-form Rahane in their home season, why couldn’t they stick with him when there is a necessity to do that? In other words, the move of dropping Rahane can be termed as reckless as dropping Rohit in an ODI at home. It is still not clear what convinced the management to give the green signal to Rohit, who averages 26.33 overseas. In the 15 overseas Tests, Rohit has only three half-centuries and the last time he played in South Africa, he had scores of 14 and 0 in Johannesburg and Durban respectively, the matches where Rahane had scored 47, 15, 51* and 96.
It is understandable that, this series is going to be all about which pace attack wins over the other and hence, Kohli wanted to come up with an attacking line-up too and hence Hardik Pandya was selected. It is clear that Kohli and Co have made some bold selections but was this the appropriate platform for them? Didn’t they think had they lost the toss and South Africa put them to bat first and Steyn and other fast bowlers unleashed themselves on the Indian line-up, was there a dependable man in the team, other than Pujara?
Toss was lost but with two changes from the above. Faf du Plessis opted to bat first and it was the Indian bowling attack that derailed the South African line-up. However, the time came when tables turned and the ball was in the hands of the Proteas bowlers. And suddenly, the decision to ignore avoid their overseas specialist Rahane came to bite the Indian team. India’s situation of 28 for 3 at the stumps of the first day was the testimony to it.
Indian opener Murali Vijay was the first man to depart after a poor shot caught at gully. Comeback man, Steyn, delivers the ball on Dhawan’s body, who wrongly chose to pull it and gave an easy caught and bowled to Steyn. The worst of all dismissals was the skipper’s and the way he got out wide opened his wounds from his struggling past against outside off. That surely brought back harsh memories from the 2014 England tour and as fast as Kohli does the damage repair, the best for him and India. Kohli got out a few minutes before stumps and when the day finished, India had Pujara and Rohit at the crease. Had it been Rahane with Pujara, there would be positivity when India resumed Day two’s play. Now, all everybody would hope is that Rohit should manage to endure the Proteas attack.
Now that this Indian team have outplayed each and every side that had toured them in the past year or two, it is time for them to prove their make on the other part of the globe too. Until a team does not perform away from home, you cannot term it as the best. This shows how crucial is the South Africa tour and the first Test certainly was not a place to experiment with the line-up. It is always difficult to recover from 0-1 away from home, especially in a country where you have had more lows than ups.
Be it Rohit, Dhawan or even Kohli, all have struggled on the fast and bouncy pitches. En route his 96 in Durban, Rahane had conquered several blows from Steyn four years back. Considering it was his career’s second series, that effort was fantastic. He replicated that on the fast tracks in Australia and England too and there has been no other in the team who has managed Rahane’s away consistency.
More than anyone in the Newlands Stadium, Rohit would be under pressure on Saturday. And maybe, Kohli too, for picking Rohit ahead of Rahane and everybody in the dressing room will hope Rohit does not return for an early lunch. The in-song Bhuvneshwar Kumar’ four wickets helped India bowl out South Africa for 286 runs and for him and the rest of the Indian bowling attack to have some impact, they need a healthy lead and that will depend on how Rohit and Pujara go about the first session on the second day.