-by Kuldip Lal
Think the Indian cricket team on tour and images of tigers and lambs come to mind.
A side that devours almost everyone before them at home — to the extent that they are now the top-ranked Test nation — has often surrendered so meekly outside the sub-continent that even its most ardent fans fear the worst.
Will the trend change when Virat Kohli‘s men step outside their comfort zone to face up to the stern challenge that awaits them on greentops and bouncy wickets in South Africa, England and Australia all through 2018.
History and past results may count for little when a new series starts, but they do give a fair idea of the unenviable task that awaits India as they seek to justify their status as the number one Test team in the world.
Take for instance South Africa here the first of three Tests opens in Cape Town on January 5. India have not won a Test series there in six previous attempts, having lost five of them.
Similar to India’s domination at home, the Proteas too have shown themselves to be invincible in their own den, having won their last five home series on the back of a power-packed pace attack.
But Kohli’s team will regard the upcoming series as the best chance to set the record straight.
The key for India lies in the batsmen posting sizeable totals, especially in the first innings, to allow the bowlers to put South Africa under pressure.
The task is easier said than done against arguably the most destructive pace attack in the business comprising Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel.
That India remain uncomfortable against the moving ball on pitches that assist pace and bounce was evident when Suranga Lakmal and company made the batsmen hop, skip and jump during the recent Kolkata Test and the Dharamshala ODI.
As many as 10 players in the touring squad — Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Ashwin, Jadeja, Ishant and Shami– have played Test cricket in South Africa before and know the conditions well.
Kohli’s 119 and 96, and Pujara’s 153 in the second innings, at Johannesburg on the previous tour in 2013-14 are still remembered by the old faithful at the Wanderers.
There are other factors too that should favour India.
Usually slow starters on tour, India will be relieved to be playing the first Test on the comparatively benign pitch of Newlands in Cape Town, rather than on the pacy wickets in the Highveld venues of Johannesburg and Centurion, the venues for the remaining two Tests.
A good start at Newlands will set the tone for a keenly-contested series befitting the top two sides in the world.
Kingsmead in Durban, where India have lost three of their five Tests including a 10-wicket drubbing in 2013, is not part of the Test itinerary this time.
South Africa has been boosted by the return of AB de Villiers to Test cricket, but a lot rests on how quickly the ageing Steyn settles down following a year-long absence due to injury.
India’s coach Ravi Shastri says 2018 will “define” where Indian cricket stands. It is up to Kohli and his men to give their countless followers a cheer in the new year. Yes, they can !