Tough safari awaits India

Tough safari awaits India

The official broadcasters of the first high-profile series of 2018 -- between India and South Africa -- may be running the most absurd promo campaign which, perhaps in tune with times, borders on hyper nationalism but the fact remains that even after a quarter of a century, India are yet to win a series in the African country. India were the first nation to visit South Africa after their reintegration into international cricket post the apartheid era but haven't been able to tame the Proteas in their own den despite six visits since their maiden tour in 1992-93 under Mohammad Azharuddin.

Since their first voyage 25 years ago, this is perhaps the only other instance that there are heightened hopes around the team. Virat Kohli and company are not only No 1 in ICC Test rankings but have remained unbeaten since their 2-1 away series win against Sri Lanka in 2015. While it's true that India have not been tested in the last two and half years in conditions that are too dissimilar to the ones in the sub-continent, the enhanced expectations from this team aren't misplaced either.

This fact wasn't lost on Kohli. "As a team we are very confident about where we stand," he said before the team's departure. "Of course we haven't played in overseas conditions apart from the Champions Trophy where we did really well. We haven't played in conditions consistently outside of India. Sri Lanka was an away tour but it was similar to our conditions. We are talking about whole different prospect which we understand and we are looking forward to it," he offered.  

They have a batting line-up, at least on the evidence of its show in the last couple of years, to die for but what has actually fired people's imagination is the battery of pacers. In Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, India can boast of a high-quality pace department. While India always prided on batsmen who were second to none, never did they possess so many pacemen of such class at the same time. And in conditions where their spinners, match-winners at home, were rendered ineffective, they were always found wanting on pace-bowling resources.        

When India travelled to South Africa in 1996-97 with Sachin Tendulkar at the helm, India badly missed a third quality seamer who could work as an effective back-up for Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad. While Srinath and Prasad claimed 35 wickets between them in three Tests, South Africa's main pace duo of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollack combined bagged only 30 wickets. What, however, made the difference was all-rounders Lance Klusener and Brian McMillan sharing 11 wickets between them.

Then South African skipper, the late Hansie Cronje, had attested the same after the first Test which India had lost by 328 runs in Durban and where Prasad and Srinath together had grabbed 15 of the 20 wickets. "I think the Test match would have been much closer had they (Srinath and Prasad) had two more quality back up seamers."

For a change, Kohli enjoys that rare luxury of having more than four pacers of class at his disposal. And if pace-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya can measure up to the expectations on him, India can mount a serious challenge. Head coach Ravi Shastri typically put it when he said, "If it's going to be tough for our batsmen, we will make it tough for their batsmen." That's the kind of bar this fast-bowling unit has raised for itself. It has the pace to hustle the batsmen and skill sets to sow enough doubts in their minds.  

It will also be testing time for the batsmen who will have to prove their mettle in tougher conditions. While the likes of Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have proven record in their previous visit to the country, they will need to perform on a more consistent basis.  

"It all depends on the kind of mindset you get into as a batsman," said Kohli when asked if South Africa poses the toughest conditions. "Even Indian conditions can be very difficult if you're not in the right frame of mind. If you're not there mentally, it does not matter what condition you're playing in. You need to take up challenges and then every condition feels like home condition. If you get accustomed to the conditions, you start feeling comfortable.

"For that you need to start to embrace the culture - seeing different thing, different cultures, so that you know what you're doing there. Last time also, when we were touring South Africa, I was really looking forward to it, Pujara as well, so as Jinx (Rahane). So we ended up doing well because we were excited. And that excitement is important," he explained.

The cramped Indian schedule ensures that there is virtually no preparation time keeping in mind the challenges and conditions of particular country. So, Kohli and company practically have no more than six days of practice time to prepare themselves for the 54-day series (comprising three Tests, six ODIs and three T20Is) that is just the beginning of a phase which, as Shastri put it, will define this team.

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