Ahead of the Test series, the South African bowling group had a clear focus—dealing with the formidable Indian middle-order of Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. At the end of the first Test, they have an extra headache to tackle—the emergence of a solid opening pair after Rohit Sharma hit his peak in his very first Test as an opener.
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It has been a dramatic change in fortunes for the Mumbai cricketer. Till last week, Sharma was seen an easy wicket to be had by the SA pace bowlers. Going into the Pune Test, he is the game-changer they are dreading. The ability to pace the innings, the art of carrying on after reaching his hundred and switching gears with his massive hits are a Sharma trademark in the one-day game. Now, he has adapted the same template to the Tests.
On first evidence, Mayank Agarwal and Sharma made for a strong combination; Agarwal’s composed and technically strong approach lending solidity to Sharma’s flair.
“He’s in great space, he’s playing really well. He looked relaxed in the first game which is great to see. All the experience that he has accumulated over the years came to the fore,” Kohli said about Sharma on the eve of the second Test at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium.
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“He’s feeling absolutely at home at the top of the order. For us as a team it’s a huge bonus. The way he’s able to take the tempo of the game forward allows the bowlers an extra hour or two maybe to bowl the opposition out.
“Look if a guy like him at the top of the order plays like the way he does in the last game then we are going to be in situations where we are going to go for victories in most of the Test matches.”
SA’S LINE OF ATTACK
After the pounding the spinners received at the hands of the Indian openers, the Proteas will have to rethink their bowling combinations. They played with only two fast bowlers and three spinners in the first Test, but pace is their strength, and their record—even in India—suggests that they will be better off bolstering the pace attack instead of trying to outspin India at home.
Following regular rains in this region, the grass will be lively, there will be a nip in the air and there will be periods of play during all five days when they will get to bowl under a cloud cover with predictions of thunderstorms. All strong signs that Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander will do better with a strong back-up. Either Anrich Nortje or Lungi Ngidi could take the third bowler’s spot in place of a spinner. Nortje is inexperienced but generates plenty of pace; Ngidi, who is coming off an injury, looked rusty during the Proteas’ nets.
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Except for the last series (2015-16), South Africa have always given India a tough fight; they are perhaps the best non-Asian side when it comes to coping with Indian conditions. And they’ve built that reputation on the strength of their fast bowlers—from Allan Donald, Fanie de Villiers and Shaun Pollock to Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel—ably aided by all rounders like Lance Klusener, Hansie Cronje, Jacques Kallis and Brian McMillan. In the drawn (1-1) series of 2010, Steyn, Morkel, Wayne Parnell and Kallis formed a four-pronged attack; earlier, in the 1-1 series of 2007-08, Steyn and Morkel teamed up with Mkhaya Ntini and Kallis. In 2000 when they won both Tests in a two-Test series, the playing XI included Donald, Pollock, Klusener, Kallis and Cronje.
Their strategy was simple: go relentlessly at the batsmen’s throat with a nagging line and length that leaves no breathing space. They could do this over after over because they could rely on smartly rotating their (often) four-pronged pace attack.
This played on the patience of the Indian strokeplayers, inducing mistakes in the process. The ploy worked to such stunning effect that the famed Indian middle-order players—Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman—didn’t have a hundred against the Proteas at home until the 2007-08 series. Only Mohammed Azharuddin had managed the three-figure mark in the first three series SA played in India, before Dravid broke the jinx in 2007-08 series on a flat Chennai wicket. Tendulkar and Laxman took even longer, getting their first hundreds in the 2010 series.
In sharp contrast, at Vishakapatnam, Sharma had a free run at weak spin bowling once Rabada and Philander were out of the way. With a three-man pace attack at his disposal, captain Faf du Plessis will be in a stronger position to test Sharma’s frailty outside the off-stump.
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Expect SA to drop off-spinner Dane Piedt. Senuran Muthusamy, the other spinner, didn’t fare much better, but may keep his spot for his batting. Du Plessis said he will pick an attack which can get him 20 wickets.
“You try and see what’s your most aggressive options to get you wickets,” he said. “We didn’t get 20 wickets in the first Test. I don’t want that to do that again, I want us to get 20 wickets in this Test match. So if there’s grass on the pitch, then great. We’re obviously used to playing on that. But we’re not planning on that and we’re planning for a pitch that will be a bit drier and the ball to spin. If it doesn’t, so be it but we’re mentally getting ready for what’s lying ahead so that we’re not surprised.”
WICKET IN FOCUS
Even though there were less than 24 hours left for the play to start when the Indian team landed for their training session, all the focus was on the pitch again. The Indian team was clearly not satisfied with how it looked. Regular rains here means it’s not as brown as they would have liked. Kohli reacted instantly after checking the wicket and was seen gesturing at local curator Pandurang Salgaonkar. Bowling coach Bharat Arun, chief coach Ravi Shastri and selector Jatin Paranjpe spent considering time putting their point across to the curators, BCCI’s Ashish Bhowmick and Pandurang.
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Pandurang summoned the local MCA official and sought his advice. Bhowmick had taken over the work on the pitch, getting the grass scrubbed with brushes and then mowing it.
When the MCA secretary arrived in the afternoon, the covers were opened up again and another round of mid-pitch discussion ensued. The sun shone brightly during India’s practice session but there were thundershowers in the evening.
With so much uncertainty over the wicket, captain Kohli preferred to keep his options open till he had a final look at it the morning of the match.
“It will have to be a decision (team combination) that will be taken tomorrow morning because the pitch can very well change with so much sun over the last three days,” he said.
Du Plessis predicted plenty of spin: “I’m not a pitch expert but I think it’ll take more turn than the first Test,” he said.
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