We might never know the exact reason for the severe shortening of this series – but what we do know is that scheduling just two Tests between the top two nations (as per the rankings) is akin to disrespecting Test cricket and its loyalists. On the brighter side, at least one can look forward to something, since the tour came close to be called off altogether.
The Matches and the Grounds
The series will consist of two back-to-back Test matches at two of the traditional venues in the country (Newlands in Cape Town had to miss out on its New Year Test unfortunately). The first Test will be played at the Wanderers in Johannesburg from December 18-22, while Kingsmead in Durban will play host to the Boxing Day Test from December 26-30. The Boxing Day Test thankfully returns to Kingsmead, after it was scrapped in favour of a T20 match last season.
Interestingly, South Africa have yet to win a Test against India at Johannesburg, having drawn the Tests in 1992-93 and 1996-97, and suffering a surprise defeat in 2006-07, which was India’s first win on South African soil. At Durban, South Africa have three wins and one defeat from five Tests against India, the latest instance being the defeat in 2010-11. However, South Africa’s recent results at Durban have been poor – they have lost each of their last four Tests there, with their last victory coming in 2007-08. At Johannesburg, the hosts have won thrice and lost twice in their last five Tests.
The Teams and the Captains
South Africa – Graeme Smith (captain), Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Dean Elgar, Imran Tahir, Jacques Kallis, Rory Kleinveldt, Morne Morkel, Alviro Petersen, Robin Peterson, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Thami Tsolekile.
The Proteas have named an unchanged squad from their last Test assignment, which was the 1-1 draw against Pakistan in the UAE. However, the presence of two spinners in the team is quite unwanted, especially since the hosts are expected to unleash their world-class pace trio of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel on the Indian batsmen, who have already been given a taste of what will be in store during their meek surrender in the three-match ODI series. Having said that, Imran Tahir does tend to add variety to the attack.
The batting line-up is equally star-studded, with as many as four world-class batsmen – skipper Greame Smith, Hashim Amla (the best batsman in the world at the moment in my opinion), Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers – among the top seven. Record-breaking captain Smith will be looking to prove a point through his solid batting after being dropped from the ODI side.
India – MS Dhoni (captain), Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, R Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ravindra Jadeja, Zaheer Khan, Ambati Rayudu, Wriddhiman Saha, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha
There are as many as 17 members in the Indian squad, who will be desperate to reverse a woeful recent overseas record, although it is easier said than done. The inclusion of experienced left-arm pace bowler Zaheer Khan is interesting, given that he was removed from the BCCI contracts list last month. His battle against his ‘bunny’ Smith (who has been dismissed six times in Tests by him) is likely to be one of the few balanced sub-plots in a series where the dice is heavily loaded in favour of the home side. Among the batsmen, I expect Pujara to be among the runs.
The BCCI has failed to learn from its past mistakes as far as scheduling overseas is concerned, and this time even the sole two-day warm-up match has been washed out. Thus, the Indians will, not for the first time, go into an away Test rubber without really adjusting to the conditions, let alone having match practice. After having ruled at home, India’s crop of batsmen are set to face their fiercest test yet, and the bowlers will also need to step up after a poor ODI series. In the first Test, captain Dhoni will become the first Indian and the 14th overall to captain in 50 Tests, but even he knows that only when his team start winning overseas will he be known as an effective leader.
Head To Head and Recent Record
India played South Africa for the first time in 1992-93, when the latter were re-admitted to the international fold. Since then, the two teams have palyed each other 27 times, with the record being 12 South African wins, 7 Indian wins and 8 draws. In matches in South Africa, the hosts have won 7, lost 2 and drawn 6 of the 15 Tests played. The most recent series between the two sides was in South Africa in 2010-11, when the well-fought three-Test series was drawn 1-1. The last time South Africa won a series against India was at home in 2006-07, when they won a three-Test series 2-1. India’s last series win against South Africa was in India in 2004-05, when they won a two-Test series 1-0. India have never won a Test series in South Africa. The last three series between the two nations have all ended in 1-1 draws (2007-08, 2009-10 and 2010-11).
Form Book and Ranking
There is not the slightest of doubt that top-ranked South Africa is by far the best Test team in the world today. Their tally of 131 is a good 12 points more than second-placed India according to the ICC rankings. The Proteas have been unbeaten overseas since 2006 – an amazing record considering the increasing role that home advantage is playing in Test cricket. They have also not lost a series since 2008-09 – since then, their record reads seven wins and six draws in 13 rubbers. Their latest series was a two-Test affair against Pakistan in the UAE, which they drew 1-1 after losing the first Test. Prior to that, they blanked New Zealand 2-0 and Pakistan 3-0 at home last season. They have won each of their last six home Tests, while also managing to beat England and Australia away in 2012 and 2012-13 .
Like South Africa, India too have won their last six home Tests, consisting of a 4-0 rout of Australia in March and a 2-0 win over a severely disinterested West Indies last month. However, unlike South Africa, the story is quite the opposite when it comes to away Tests. They have lost each of their last eight away matches (4-0 each in England and Australia in 2011 and 2011-12) and South Africa will be their first overseas assignment in two years. Prior to the home wins over Australia and the West Indies, India lost at home to England. It would be true to say that India’s second place in the rankings is mostly due to their home wins, for their last overseas Test win came at Kingston during the tour to the Caribbean in 2011 which was a good ten games back.
Players To Watch Out For
Dale Steyn is no ordinary bowler. A record of 340 wickets in 67 Tests at an average of 22.65 and a strike rate of 41.40 is testimony to the fact that he is in a different league altogether. His record against India – 53 wickets in 10 Tests at 19.00 – coupled with the sheer inexperience of the visiting batsmen means that India might be in for trouble. Backed by the accurate Philander and the tall Morkel, expect Steyn to be at his fiery best, especially if his recent form in the ODI series is any indication. His ability to move the ball away from the right-handers at will, and that too at a serious speed – not to mention the swing and reverse-swing – will ensure that India’s next-generation batsmen will be constantly on their toes.
India’s best possible answer to Steyn and Co. could well be someone who is just two Tests old. Though Zaheer Khan’s experience is a great asset, it will Mohammed Shami who will be the one to watch out for. Shami made short work of the touring West Indians in his debut series, but the South African tour is something entirely different. He gave glimpses of his ability during the forgettable ODI series, and there is no reason why he cannot replicate that in the longer version. Against a solid batting line-up, this is as tough a challenge a talented youngster like Shami could have asked for. If he gives his best, and if Zaheer too comes good, then the contest might be closer than what is expected.
In their last two tours of South Africa, India had bounced back from demoralising defeats (ODI sweep in 2006-07 and an innings loss in 2010-11) to conjure two memorable Test wins in the rainbow nation. However, this time, there is a stark contrast in the batting experience compared to those two sides. Add to that BCCI’s inept scheduling and South Africa’s depth and prowess, and it is difficult to expect anything else but a 2-0 win for the hosts.