Sunshine and cool breeze have been taking turns but Johannesburg has also been experiencing rain ahead of India’s tour opener. As beautiful as it may look, the wonderful backdrop, open stadium, the serene surroundings and grass banks for spectators, it also makes the word adaptability assume great significance for India.
The talk ahead of this tour was about how India will take on South African pace attack on wickets affording bounce in Test matches. And experts have tagged India outright favourites in the ODIs what with their all-round strength and the home batsmen struggling for form, having lost their first-ever ODI series to Pakistan at home.
But ask MS Dhoni about this and his answer betrays a slight doubt in the minds of the skipper and his team mates.
“South Africa is one place where it depends on how the wicket is prepared and how the conditions are. Here it gets easy to score if there is sunshine (the bounce helps stroke play). But if it is overcast, it becomes different.” This was, of course, before he saw the wicket, but it reflects the dilemma for the world’s top ODI side.
If the conditions get breezy and overcast and if they lose early wickets, India’s struggling middle-order will get exposed. And if it is sunny and dry, the bowling, lacking express pace, can come up short. Over the past few ODIs, even while India batsmen have chased down big totals built on big scores from the top three, the bowlers have allowed teams to overhaul challenging totals.
With a balanced young side that has Champions Trophy victory as proof of the ability to adapt, the middle-order is somewhat under scrutiny.
So far, the top three – Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli – have enjoyed a great run and their batting style is expected to suit the bouncy tracks.
However, their performances have in some ways hidden the recent failures of Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh, who will have eyes trained on them. As India trained on Wednesday, batsmen shadow-practicing focused on the cut and leaving the ball. It said a lot about what they are expecting. These shots may just define Thursday’s game.
While the middle-order has no doubt been struggling, MS Dhoni has taken his batting extremely seriously at the nets. He has put in extra effort in the nets, in fact a lot more than the others, perhaps realising that perhaps he would be asked to produce a special innings to get the job done here.
One of the most common worries for India captains over the years has been the inability to field a consistent bowling line-up. And when they have done, on the last two tours, they’ve won two Tests.
The first time, in 2006/7, they took the early lead while three years back, the returned home with a creditable 1-1 series draw.
The fact is that, as Dhoni put it, India lacks pace. “We have to play to our strength (seam and swing),” he said.
The fastest of them all, Umesh Yadav, has struggled for form.
What may help them though is that the South Africa’s batting is looking more shaky and unsettled than India’s.
A South African journalist asked, “The home team’s batting is struggling. Will it be of help to you?” Dhoni replied to everyone’s amusement, “We hope they continue their bad form.”
But it’s unlikely he will take chances; he will go in with five bowlers, his strategy at home.