India eye turnaround in fortune

Dhonis men look to level series at the Wanderers, their favourite venue in SA

India eye turnaround in fortune

The Bullring has been India’s luckiest, most successful ground in South Africa. It was at the Wanderers that, in December 2006, they registered their first Test win on Protean soil; nine months later, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s young side turned the cricketing landscape on its head with an extraordinary and completely unexpected triumph in the World T20.

Older and infinitely wiser, Dhoni must inspire a dramatic and immediate turnaround, weather permitting, in Saturday’s second one-dayer, which will see Sachin Tendulkar equal Sanath Jayasuriya’s record of highest number ODI innings at 444, if India are not to leave themselves with too much to do in the five-match series against the home side. Another defeat, after Wednesday’s 135-run rout in Durban, will necessitate India to win the last three matches for an elusive series triumph in this country; for a team that has won just three of 21 matches here, that is nothing if not a tall order.

Their skills, with both bat and ball, badly let India down in game one against a South African side whose balance has been severely affected by the absence of ace all-rounder Jacques Kallis. The loss of the toss didn’t help because it gave the hosts the best of the batting and bowling conditions; India, though, must believe there is enough experience and quality in their midst to overcome such setbacks which, given Dhoni’s miserable luck with the coin, they are accustomed to anyway.

Kallis’ unavailability has left the Proteas distinctly thin on batting might. The likes of Colin Ingram and David Miller are new to international cricket, while Francois du Plessis is yet to make his debut. There is immense potential in that trio, but the lack of experience and their relative unfamiliarity with pressure situations are weaknesses India must seek to exploit. Albie Morkel, an all-rounder in the Kallis mould but without the same intimidating presence, is out of favour. The subsequent elongated tail means the Proteas are over-dependent on Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy.

India can ill-afford to sit back and allow South Africa to build partnerships and, resultantly, pressure. In Durban, at 82 for three with De Villiers and Duminy representing the last genuine threat, cricketing logic suggested at least a brief phase of attacking captaincy. Instead of bringing his strike bowlers back on, Dhoni spread the field, operated with his part-timers and conceded easy, unhurried singles. Allowed the luxury of playing themselves in, the fourth-wicket pair punished India with a run-a-ball 131, the decisive partnership powering South Africa into the ascendancy.

For all his natural aggression as a batsman, Dhoni is a reasonably conservative captain. He has shown a distinct tendency to be reactive when being pro-active might have fetched more handsome dividends. While it isn’t time yet for desperate, all-out attack, India ought to have realised by now that South Africa are masters at making the most of even the tiniest of openings.

India’s bowling will be under some pressure to pick up key wickets early and maintain a grip on the Proteas, but that will be nothing compared to the load on the batsmen. Once again undone by a combination of no little pace and great bounce on a surface made livelier by the lights, the younger – but not inexperienced -- guns had no answers to the innumerable questions posed by Morne Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. That South Africa rolled them over for just 154 with no substantial contribution from Dale Steyn must be a cause for concern within the Indian set-up; Steyn will relish the pace and bounce at the Wanderers, where the ball carries further because of the rarefied atmosphere.

Given the fragility of the middle-order, the burden on Sachin Tendulkar’s shoulders in the absence of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir becomes even heavier. An adventurous stroke hastened his downfall in Durban; a repeat indiscretion can be safely ruled out.

Much, of course, will depend on the weather. It rained quite heavily at various stages on Friday, and the forecast is for a 72 percent chance of ‘numerous showers’ on match-day. On their last full visit to South Africa in 2006, the Wanderers game was washed out with not even the toss being gone through. Wonder what Saturday has in store.

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