"I think it will be about Indian batting versus South African batting. Both sides have very good bowling attacks. I think our bowlers will do a pretty good job, (but) it will boil down to how our batsmen fare. If our batsmen stand up and put the runs on the board you could have a very competitive and entertaining series."
While everyone was salivating over of a lethal pace attack, one of the best to tour overseas in a very long time, India coach Ravi Shastri emphasised the importance of the batsmen, before departing to South Africa. It's been the strategy on which they have thrived over the past few years. Amass runs on the board and then choke the opposition with relentless pressure.
Before the South Africa series, India's last few first innings totals read: 536/7 declared, 610/6 declared, 172, 487, 622/9 declared, 600, 332, 603/9 declared. While these scores were raised on better batting pitches at home, it gave the bowlers the freedom to experiment. At home, the margin of error was large but in South Africa, where all the talk was centred around the bounce on the wickets, the margin of error was minimal. This was witnessed in Cape Town where the bowlers slightly erred in lengths and the batsmen couldn't manage to neutralise it. The first innings lead was 77, but it seemed humongous. The match was probably lost on day one despite the bowlers learning from their mistakes and bundling the Proteas out for 130 in the second innings.
In the past one year (2017), India have had the best batting average in Tests – 44.72. They have the most centuries scored – 19. But as they head into the second Test at Centurion, there is tremendous pressure on their batsmen.
Their techniques have been opened and dissected by a bevy of experts, writers and analysts. Their footwork pored over. The selections questioned. Another blink of an eye and swoosh... the series is gone.
Somewhere down the line it seemed as if the right mix of caution and aggression was missing in Cape Town. Some of the batsmen seemed too cautious at times while others picked up wrong deliveries to get going. With the South African pace quartet steaming in with relentless aggression, a bundle of nervous energy seemed to be floating around. Murali Vijay played two uncharacteristic shots off full outswinging deliveries and was caught off outside edges in both innings. Shikhar Dhawan was bounced out both the times. Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma got into too much of a shell and then lost their concentration. Salt was continuously rubbed into Virat Kohli's outside off stump wound.
Hardik Pandya single-handedly kept them alive with a 95-ball 93 knock in the first innings. He strode out under pressure at 76/5 but what worked for him was the counter-attacking approach. Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada were bowling with accuracy and precision by hitting the right lengths. India needed someone to break the rhythm. Hardik did precisely that, he followed the template that AB de Villiers had set in the first innings. It wasn't just a slug-fest. It was clever, calculated counter.
De Villiers (65 off 84 balls) had conjured a similar knock in the first innings. With Bhuvneshwar Kumar breathing fire with three wickets in the first five overs of the match, he went on the counter-attack and hit four boundaries off the Uttar Pradesh pacer in the ninth over. That, according to South Africa batting coach Dale Benkenstine, who was thinking of taking an Uber back to the hotel at 12/3, was a game changer.
"It was definitely the genius of AB. You cannot tell him how to bat as a coach. It made the bowlers worry about their lengths and that partnership of 100 runs got us back in the game. It brought belief back in the change room," Benkenstine said after the first day's play.
South Africa needed to do something different with the bounce and seam movement on offer and de Villiers realised it very early. He played very late and seemed at ease. What sets him apart is the preternatural ability to dispatch even good balls four fours.
In their first innings, South Africa tried to maintain momentum througout, they scored at 3.90 runs per over while India went at 2.83 runs an over.
In maintaining the right balance between caution and aggression, manufacturing shots off even good balls will be the key for the Indian batsmen. The Centurion track looks hard and bouncy and might hold similar shape as the Newlands one. Virat Kohli in the pre-match conference said that it looks like a lively pitch and will have similar pace and bounce. "Fast bowling-minded" South Africa coach Ottis Gibson might again unleash a four-pronged pace attack at Supersport Park. The Indian batsmen will need to break the shackles in face of relentless pressure. It's won't be just about going on an all-out attack but taking calculated risks, unsettling the bowlers' rhythm and finding that balance which de Villiers and Pandya managed pretty well.
A visibly disappointed Kohli emphasised that the batsmen needed to counter the unrelenting pressure and need to show intent and positivity after the first match.
"You can’t just stand there and take whatever is coming your way and not have intent at all,” Kohli said after the Cape Town loss. “You might get out, but it’s important to keep coming at the bowler and making them feel that if you make an error I am going to score. So I think that message needs to go pretty strongly and you need to do that as a batting unit, collectively. I think Hardik did that really well in the first innings, Ash (Ashwin) was really positive in the second innings but if five-six of us can have that mindset, starting from the top, it will really create that sort of momentum for us as a batting unit which, I think, we lacked in both the innings."
It would be harsh to judge Shikhar Dhawan on the basis of just one match but with the series on the line, India might look to replace him with KL Rahul who has centuries in Australia, Sri Lanka and West Indies and according to some, a better technique than Dhawan overseas who has a combined average of 27.81 in South Africa, England, New Zealand and South Africa. Ajinkya Rahane's exclusion from the first Test had everyone scratching their heads. He has centuries in England, Australia, New Zealand and came very close to one (96) in South Africa during the last tour. He averages 48.59 combined in these countries and is someone who likes to ride the bounce, play late and with soft hands. The selection call will be a tough one but India might look to go in with six batsmen and drop the lone spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.
A loss in the first Test and suddenly it feels like a long, arduous tour. This much-vaunted Indian batting line-up has been in precarious situations at home as well but the pressure going into the second Test will be very different and this is where the de Villiers-Pandya template might help them release the pressure valve.