In the 1990s, the phrase “final frontier” became immensely popular in cricket circles as the Australian team led by Steve Waugh continued their relentless domination across the world. They ended up winning everywhere else other than India. The Australian attempt to conquer their final frontier became the stuff of legend, culminating in an epic series in 2001 which is still fondly remembered for perhaps the greatest series-turning knock in test cricket history.
When applied to India, most people would naturally think of beating Australia in Australia as the final frontier. The team under Ganguly managed to improve its overseas record by winning series in West Indies and England, but never won a series in Australia. However, they managed to tie the series in 2003-2004 and almost managed to win it in Sydney. They famously won a test in Perth in 2008 too. India- Australia series have been so riveting in recent times that the fact that India have yet to beat South Africa in South Africa is forgotten.
In fact, India have only ever won two matches in South Africa, one each in their last two visits. India’s best chance to win a series came when they toured South Africa in 2010-2011. The series however ended in a draw.
Since then, both teams have gone in opposite directions. South Africa are the dominant test side in the world today, while India had disastrous tours of England and Australia, losing all four matches in both series. South Africa’s bowling, always a strength, looks stronger than ever. India’s batting, historically a strength too, on the other hand looks weak all of a sudden with the departure of four legendary batsmen in Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag and Laxman. Now they look to improve their recent miserable away record in a country where they have historically struggled against a side which is aspiring towards cricket greatness. Could the task be any tougher?
Well, yes, of course it could be. The fact of the matter is that expectations from this Indian side are pretty low at the moment. As low, in fact, as the expectations from the South African side are high. Even a draw in a test match would be considered an achievement for India whereas South Africa really have everything to lose and nothing to gain. It is the exact opposite scenario of the one day series where a high- ranked India were beaten by South Africa. India should take strength from this and allow their batsmen to play freely without being inhibited in their stroke play. If any one of them clicks, the pressure could fall back on the South African bowlers.
This easier said than done though. The Indians will be up against the best bowling line up in the world comprising of Steyn, Philander and Morkel. The last time India toured here, Steyn destroyed them single handedly. This time, he has Philander, a top-class bowler of exactly the type Indians tend to struggle against and a much-improved Morkel for company.
For me, the series will be decided by the other battle which is not talked about much because its outcome seems to be taken for granted. I am referring of course to the battle between the Indian bowling line up and the mighty Protean batsmen. India HAVE to strike early. If Smith or Amla get off to a good start, then it will be long sessions in the field against a daunting array of batsmen which features someone like Duminy walking in to bat at Number 7. It is here that India’s matches will be won or lost.
Try as I might, I cannot see them winning this contest. On a good day, their batsmen may post a reasonable total against Steyn and co, but their bowlers simply do not seem incapable of destroying the South African batting line up in a similar manner. Zaheer has had the measure of Smith in the past, but this is the series where I see Smith turning this around and imposing himself on India.
Expect Dale Steyn to destroy India at least once in four innings and the abysmal record of India abroad to continue. It will be interesting to see which Indian batsmen steps up and succeeds (relatively speaking) in this series because that will be a harbinger of more exciting series that lie in wait for us in the years to come. My gutfeel is that this will be Pujara and not Kohli. We will wait and watch on this.
Prediction: I expect the Indians to improve their record overseas maybe next season, but not so soon. It is perhaps a boring and conventional prediction to make, but I just cannot see beyond a 2-0 result unless the teams are given a flat track at Johannesburg or Durban. The top ranked team in the world will beat the second ranked team without too much of fuss and add another jewel to their crown.