Indian cricket has all the reasons to celebrate the year 2017. They have played some splendid cricket throughout, most of it at home and are now well tuned to prove themselves overseas.
Playing cricket away from home has never been India’s forte. It was way back in 1911 that an unofficial all-India side embarked on an away tour for the first time. Although their performance was not very good, Baloo Palwankar, a left arm spinner, took 114 wickets on the tour and returned home as one of the first Dalit celebrities. He was felicitated by none other than a young BR Ambedkar, who looked up to him as his hero.
India’s first official overseas tour in 1932 and the subsequent ones were unproductive, but there were some outstanding individual performances that kept die-hard Indian fans interested. In fact, this is primarily the reason we Indians love analysing individual data as compared to team statistics.
The first ever win overseas came in 1967, against New Zealand. It was only in 1971, under the captaincy of Ajit Wadekar, that India finally established themselves as a full-fledged Test playing country. India beat the West Indies and England in their backyard and the red carpet welcome that the team received on their arrival was simply spectacular. The people of Mumbai came out in thousands to greet the Indian motorcade. This was the moment popularly referred to as the “Renaissance of Indian cricket.”
Unfortunately, since then India have not had any major overseas success against top cricket playing sides, apart from beating England in 1996 and 2007. The two countries where India have not yet won a Test series are South Africa and Australia, and the year 2018 will give them the golden opportunity to do so.
The Indian side will embark on a tour of South Africa in the beginning of next year and it looks mentally confident to face the Proteas in their own domain. The Indian team’s frontline batsmen, apart from Ajinkya Rahane, are in peak form. Captain Virat Kohli, with a century and a double century under his belt against Sri Lanka in the recently concluded Test series, looks unstoppable and someone who cannot be vanquished.
India’s preparations under the astute guidance of coach Ravi Shastri and his support staff seem to be just what the doctored ordered. India are the number one Test side in the world at present, a fact which is reflected in the way they are playing. The fluent stroke-play by the batters and the confidence that one sees among the bowlers are signs one has not seen before. This Indian team seems to have set the target of returning victorious from overseas tours.
However, there are hurdles that will need to be crossed. The first and foremost is adapting to overseas conditions, which are very different from home. The itinerary drawn for the South Africa tour does not give the team any opportunity to play practice matches before the first Test commences at Cape Town from January 5, 2018. The one tour game that was earmarked ahead of the first Test has been cancelled by India, the reason being the team wants to spend more time in the nets rather than playing a practice match.
The new fashion of playing Test cricket without getting acclimatised to the conditions, coupled with having three-match series, are some of the reasons why most visiting sides fail to win. The batsmen need to get adjusted to the light, atmosphere and would also need to adjust their technique accordingly. The bowlers face an even tougher task, as adjusting their length at their optimum pace requires readjusting their body weight and action. The cricket ball in South Africa is the Kookaburra make, and not the SG used for Tests in India. The seam and the feel, as well as behaviour in the air, are very different between Kookaburra and SG balls. The Indian bowlers will need to adapt quickly in order to be successful.
Another area which one tends to ignore is fielding. India are still struggling with their close-in catching. They need to improve, especially their slip catching, as they have swing bowlers rather than speedsters.
The selection of the Indian team without a wrist spinner is surprising. Given the way Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav are bowling at present, one felt that one of two should have been included in the squad. While India’s spin duo of Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin have proven to be adequate, both are finger spinners and it would be naïve to expect a dusty eroding wicket in Cape Town, Centurion or Johannesburg.
The South African side has a strong batting line-up comprising Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock. They will also be boosted by the return of two of their legends -- AB de Villiers, a batsman every opposition dreads, and Dale Steyn, the demon fast bowler. Steyn, along with Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, would be a handful for any batsman. This bowling attack will be sight to behold, but only for those who are not out there in the middle.
The South Africans will be itching to take revenge after being humiliated in India in 2016. The first Test will play an important role in the final outcome of the series. India must take forward the positive, winning attitude with them and hope that all the processes that proved successful in 2017 continue to flourish.
(The author is a former India cricketer)