By Kuldip Lal
Mauled in Cape Town by arguably the most destructive pace attack in the modern game, can India’s star batsmen bounce back in what will be even more demanding conditions in the next two Tests in South Africa ?
The meek surrender with the bat, barring Hardik Pandya’s breathtaking assault in the first innings and Ravichandran Ashwin’s defiance in the second, undid the remarkable work by the bowlers.
India can take solace in the fact that most batting line-ups would not have survived on the spiced-up Newlands pitch tailor-made for the wily Vernon Philander and the pace battery of Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada.
The bad news for Virat Kohli’s number one side, however, is that the SuperSport Park in Centurion and the Wanderers in Johannesburg, venues of the next two Tests, are even more conducive for menacing fast bowling.
There may not be as much swing and movement as in Cape Town, but the steep bounce on the bone-hard pitches at the two Highveld venues promises to make life difficult for Indian batsmen.
Centurion, where the second Test starts on January 13, is a South African fortress with the Proteas winning 17 wins of 22 Test there and losing just two.
The only time India played a Test there, way back in 2010, a batting line-up of Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tenndulkar and VVS Laxman succumbed to a massive defeat by an innings and 25 runs.
Morkel, who took five wickets in the first innings of that match and two in the second, is still around to torment the Indians.
Dale Steyn may have hobbled off injured at Cape Town and won’t be seen for the rest of the series, but the Indians will still be confronted by the fury of a four-man pace attack.
Morkel, Philander and Rabada will be joined by one of the four reserve quicks in the squad — Duanne Olivier, Lungi Ngidi, Chris Morris or Andile Phehlukwayo — as South African coach Ottis Gibson goes for the kill.
India’s top-order failed so miserably against the moving ball at Newlands that half the side was back in the pavilion with only 76 runs on the board in both innings.
The bowlers performed reasonably well in helpful conditions, especially when they shot the Proteas out for 130 in the second innings, but the batsmen need to give them enough runs to defend.
So is it all over for India in the series ? Or can Kohli’s team engineer a dramatic turnaround to light up one of the most anticipated series in recent times ?
The Indians have often said that it is not the bounce, but the swinging ball, which worries them more. At least at both the Centurion and the Wanderers there may not be as much pronounced swing in the air as at Newlands.
But there is still the menace of the rising ball at speeds averaging over 140 kph to be dealt with from both ends.
Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri will not only have to regroup the side but also ponder long and hard over about picking the best combination that can master the conditions.
Should Shikhar Dhawan, a sitting duck against short-pitched deliveries as was evident in both innings at Newlands, make way for KL Rahul, whose three of four Test hundreds have been scored abroad ?
And will vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane, surprisingly kept out of the first Test despite a fine overseas record, be picked
or will Rohit Sharma be given another chance to prove he can succeed outside India too.
Difficult choices have to be made to ensure the series is not lost at Centurion itself. Fortunately, both Kohli and Shastri don’t shy away from making tough decisions.