Pressure on S Africa to deliver

Last Updated 20 January 2011, 16:35 IST

South Africa would love to believe they have played the better cricket, and that India’s 2-1 lead ahead of Friday’s fourth one-dayer at St George’s Park is a travesty of justice. Graeme Smith’s men, however, must start to realise – and quickly – that 50-over matches aren’t won after just three-quarters of the game.

It’s in the seizing of key moments that the fortitude of teams comes to the fore. India have consistently played the crucial phases of the last two matches with intensity, composure and self-belief, facets that have deserted the Proteas at the first hint of pressure, real or imaginary.

Truth to tell, despite batting well below potential, it’s not undeservingly so that India are on the cusp of their maiden one-day series triumph in South Africa. Reinvigorated by being pushed to a corner, India have now sprung back sensationally twice. The one-run win in Johannesburg reiterated to Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men the significance of keeping on fighting till the bitter end; Tuesday’s two-wicket win in Cape Town has enhanced the self-belief and confidence of the unit.

To infer therefore that India necessarily have the edge now will, however, border on the foolhardy. Two successive wins have given the team momentum and impetus which, however, will count for very little when play begins on Friday. The young side is well aware of the pitfalls of taking anything for granted – it’s inconceivable that they haven’t drawn lessons from South Africa’s travails – especially given how poorly they have batted throughout the series.

India’s problems have originated at the top, where Murali Vijay has looked supremely out of his depths. The Tamil Nadu opener has displayed technical expertise and temperamental nous in Test cricket and is a dangerous customer in the Twenty20 format, but success has remained elusive the 50-over game. Eleven internationals have yielded just 196 runs with a highest of 33; as much as the numbers, his uncertain ways at the crease inspire little confidence and India might be sorely tempted to leave him out, even if there is no other specialist batsman in the reserves.

It needed Yusuf Pathan’s unrestrained ball-striking and Harbhajan Singh’s pyrotechnics for India to cross 200 for the first time this series, but at St George’s Park, in three tilts against the Proteas, India are yet to top 180. The floodlights here aren’t the best in the world and batting second is fraught with danger; if India aim to join Australia (twice) and England in becoming the only sides to win bilateral one-day series here, they must pull up their socks forthwith.

It’s a venue where pacers have had the upper hand over the last five matches under lights, accounting for 86 percent of the wickets that have fallen. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe will enjoy that stat, as will Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel who, along with offie Harbhajan, have carried the Indian bowling.

India have been as badly let down by Ashish Nehra as have South Africa by his left-arm quick-bowling counterpart Wayne Parnell. In low scoring games, both men have leaked runs by the bushel; changes could well be on the cards, though whether the two leg-spinners that have been kept in cotton wool – Piyush Chawla and Imran Tahir respectively – are given a go remains to be seen.

It’s interesting how the different batting units have had differing problems. India have found the South African pace attack a handful but the home batsmen too have floundered, both against pace and spin, of the specialist and part-time variety. Harbhajan has spun a tantalising web around them, but the likes of Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina, who could both do with some runs on the board, and Pathan too have troubled them no end. Hardly encouraging signs with the World Cup just round the corner.

South African uncertainty extended to selection matters with all-rounder Albie Morkel released to play domestic cricket a day after being drafted in for the last two matches. Up to India, then, to step in and deliver the knockout blow, weather permitting.

(Published 20 January 2011, 16:35 IST)

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