In the Newlands Test that ended on Monday (January 8), India were, despite their first innings batting collapse, in a good position to scare South Africa. In the second half of the Test, India’s bowlers get them back into a fighting position, and their vaunted batting line-up was to face a bowling line-up on testing conditions. Without Dale Steyn.
India responded by invoking the history of Indian batting in overseas conditions: Triggering the psychic memory and muscle memory of collapse. Only a couple of batsmen showed the technique and temperament to face genuine pace bowling on a wicket where getting onto the front foot was far from easy. The familiarity of the Indian response must be a matter of disgrace for Indian cricket authorities, managers and the selection board. This tour was long scheduled and it wasn’t unimaginable to expect bouncy wickets.
In the fourth innings, India did not even put a fight. So, in one game, and in a mini-innings, the “form” that Murali Vijay, and in particular Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma had come with to South African shores on the back of performances against a bottom-scraping Sri Lanka, had been busted.
The Test is part of a blueprint in Indian Test cricket history of doing poorly in the first game abroad. (Credit: BCCI photos)
The Newlands Test proved that in the era of fake news, the fakest news in the world may be that India is the best Test team in the world. A team that hasn’t won a series in Australia, England or South Africa surely can’t be number one in the world, but for statistical jugglery.
The Test is part of a blueprint in Indian Test cricket history of doing poorly in the first game abroad. A new dimension that has emerged is of not treating Test cricket away from the subcontinent with the gravity it deserves. The Indian cricket management decided to forego the sole practice game before the Newlands Test for more rigorous net practice to acclimatise to South African conditions. It must be a first in the history of international cricket that extended net practice is the preferred mode of adapting to foreign conditions.
The Indian team management, the coach Ravi Shastri in particular talked up this approach. At the end of the home series against Sri Lanka, even Virat Kohli, complained about cramped scheduling. The Tests against Sri Lanka helped boost the averages for batsmen like Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan on flattish wickets where the bounce rarely rose to thigh level. Their “form” got them into the playing eleven and was punctured like a wayward balloon with the pinprick of true pace and bounce. Clearly, it doesn’t take a greenhorn to see that good Test teams are not made like this.
As part of the commentary panel, former South African great Jonty Rhodes said something prophetic before the beginning of the fourth innings in the Newlands Test. “How they play in this innings will define what India will do in the series, and in England and Australia.” The fourth innings holds a dire signal about India’s immediate Test future. Sharma’s, Dhawan’s and to some extent Vijay’s batting in the Test lends itself to tragic meaning if you are Test cricket follower of India’s performances: They are India’s Tests tragic trio.
Rohit Sharma at the Test level reminds one of former English player Graeme Hick. By the end of Hick’s time as a talented, but under-achieving English player, Geoffrey Boycott called him a "flat-track bully". It now applies to Sharma. To be fair, Sharma did guts it out in the first innings scoring 11 out of 59 balls before being felled by a fast in-dipping delivery by Kagiso Rabada - but the dismissal had an air of inevitability to it, his feet were heavy and they were late reacting to the sudden inward trajectory of the ball. Across both innings that Sharma batted, every other delivery he faced, clinically took apart his game as a Test-level batsman.
In the fourth innings, Sharma seemed to be out at least three times before eventually getting out. He was dropped off a mistimed hook/pull before he got out to a rising ball that he played away from his body and onto the stumps. But the mistimed pull summarises Sharma’s technique at the moment. His back foot went nowhere; the body stood overwhelmed by the shock of a venomous bouncer homing in on his throat; the unbridled weight transfer resulted in a heave-ho of the bat careening the ball skywards.
The image of Rohit Sharma watching the ball after playing the shot, but before being dropped by Keshav Maharaj spoke the proverbial thousand words. The half-hearted pull was a plea, a cry, an exhortation to be let off the pressure cooker that was Newlands’s 22 yards and onto Wankhede’s comfort zone.
Shikhar Dhawan is another of India’s apparent Test batsmen. In the first innings at the end of the first day, Shikhar Dhawan pulled Dale Steyn and got out in nearly the same manner as his dismissal in the first Test against South Africa in the first innings at Johannesburg in the previous tour in December 2013. In the second innings, he got to the pitch of a Vernon Philander pitched-up delivery after the ball had reached wicketkeeper Quentin de Kok’s gloves and he had thrown it up in mock appeal. A little later, Morne Morkel’s bounce and Dhawan’s non-existent technique helped produce a sui generis stroke: a one-handed fend-pull-hoick. Dhawan appears a Sanath Jayasuriya mimic, just at the moment he has neither the skill nor the hand-eye adroitness of the Sri Lankan.
Sharma’s mistimed pull in the second innings symbolises his helplessness; and Dhawan’s listless fending against the short, rising delivery, his own. Dhawan can stake a good claim in joining the ranks of footwork-less Indian Test opening batsmen.
Murali Vijay, though, is a much more assured and accomplished Test batsman than Sharma or Dhawan. Even if he wasn’t adapted to South African conditions, it is disbelieving to have found him play so far away from his body in India’s first innings at the end of the first day’s play. Vijay made real amends in the fourth innings, leaving many deliveries outside the off stump. Till India was 28/0, Vijay was given out twice, but reviewed successfully. Through those overs, the gulf in Test batting quality between Vijay and Dhawan was amply in show. Vijay made his feet talk. But the delivery that finally got him was again a ball that betrayed Vijay’s lack of knowing his off stump. He ended up playing at a delivery he needed to have left alone. Even an experienced opener like him, with Test runs in England, Australia and South Africa in the past, proved he wasn’t familiarised with the testing conditions.
India’s unpardonable sin for this tour is the lack of practice, especially for a poor touring team like India. The bowlers managed to adjust their lengths in the second innings, while the batsmen struggled. Bowlers get more chances than batsmen, which is why the latter need more time to get the measure of conditions in Test cricket. Ian Chappell has often commented on how a batsman’s frame of mind gets reflected in his feet movement and how batsmen reared on low-bounce wickets usually find it much harder to make the adjustment to bouncier wickets than the other way round. Therefore, practice games are quintessential for them.
Since South Africa’s readmission to international cricket in 1991-1992, only one team has the outstanding record of never having lost a Test series there. Australia have drawn Test series in 1994 and 2011, and won convincingly in 1997, 2002, 2006, 2009 and 2014. Australian and South African conditions are by and large somewhat similar. But even a cursory look at the amount of attention paid to pre-tour preparation (practice games) by the Australian team will tell you how champion sides are sculpted to perform well. During its era of dominance, touring Australian teams were so well prepared that they invariably won opening games which made an impact on the series.
For all the talk and hype about this marquee series, India have not given a Test tour to South Africa the gravity it needed to be given. And it has shown them up badly.
Is Virat Kohli culpable for having the tactics that don’t match his team’s skill levels and disposition? Here he was during the post-match conference at Newlands: “At the same time, we need to have intent because the kind of bowling attack they have - especially on these pitches they get extra bounce and they get extra pace off the wicket - you can't be in a zone of not having intent and see off 35-40 overs. You need to find the perfect balance to do well in South Africa, especially where there is more bounce.”
Can the batsmen be blamed for sticking with Virat Kohli’s dictum of batsmen showing “intent” even if the bowling is top class? Across the two innings India batted Cheteshwar Pujara (in the first innings he made one mistake; in his second sally he got a great ball) and to some extent Kohli (who played poorly in the first innings and got foxed by Philander in the second), showed some level of tuning to South African circumstances. And they also displayed some amount of Kohli’s “intent.” (Hardik Pandya and Bhuvneshwar Kumar batted confidently in the first innings, but the conditions had become slightly easier then.)
Is Kohli misstating “intent”? What is the most concrete form of batsmanship he is looking for given his batsmen’s skill levels and experience? Over 2017, two batsmen in demanding conditions at home and abroad have played high-quality innings with plenty of “intent.” In the recently concluded Ashes, the Australian captain Steve Smith scored one of his slowest, but series-defining Test hundreds in Brisbane. Across the series, though he did not score a single hundred, English captain Joe Root batted like a prize-fighter. His boundary-less fifty, battling record levels of heat in Sydney, is worthy of Ashes lore. Steve Smith’s three hundreds in the series in India in 2017, marked by dogged crease occupation, is another instance of purposeful batting with a plan in mind in challenging situations.
In the history of Test cricket, even the dazzlers of the game from the world-beating West Indian, Australian and English sides, have won games in harsh circumstances by sheer crease occupation. Kohli needs to give his batsmen a clearer idea, a more practicable game-plan that merges their skills set with the difficulty at hand. Otherwise, this tour too, promises to be the chronicle of a batting disaster foretold.