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By Sunil Gavaskar
India’s win over New Zealand in the final Test keeps them on top of the rankings, but the first two drawn Tests have not helped much in garnering points that would increase the gap between them and South Africa.
Luckily, Pakistan played some determined cricket in the United Arab Emirates to deny South Africa wins in the two Test series there, and that has not helped South Africa with the points table too. Once again as happened earlier in the year when the Proteas came over to play in India for the number one ranking, it will now be played in South Africa and that gives them a clear home advantage. The South Africans had agreed to play two Tests instead of the seven match one-day series then, just like the Australians did at the start of this season and like the Australians, they had come earlier to India to play a practice game before playing the Tests.
While a practice game by itself does not always help, the more time that a team gets to get used to the weather and pitches makes a world of a difference to the result. India have been notoriously slow starters overseas and often that means that India is playing catch up with the opposition all the time and are thus under more pressure. The ICC schedule for India has invariably been crowded and so India will play a Test series straight after playing the one-day series against New Zealand which again will mean getting the mindset changed from the shorter version of the game to its longer format. It would have helped if the one-day series had been played first and then the Tests, so that the team despite not having too many days to get used to the South African pitches would have at least been in the mental makeup for the longer and definitely sterner Tests against the Proteas.
Now there is talk that some players will go to South Africa earlier, so that they get used to the conditions and pitches there, but while they get used to the conditions who are they going to play against. In any case how many are going to go earlier and what does it achieve if its only half a dozen players who are going to get there unless they can play some proper matches and not just play against their own in the nets.
Yes, having local net bowlers especially the quicker variety will definitely be a big help to the players but we also have to get our bowlers used to bowling the length that will trouble the South African batsmen who seem to be in terrific form against the Pakistanis in the Dubai and Abu Dhabi Tests.
Graeme Smith’s injury means that South Africa could well be with a new skipper at least for the first Test and that will also mean that they will be having a new opening combination and if it is not a right and left-handed one then that will be a lot better for our bowlers to bowl without having to adjust their line too much. Sreesanth bowled India to a great win in the first Test in 2006 with his late outswing causing enormous problems to the Proteas batsmen and if he can keep his cool like he did in Nagpur, then he will continue to bowl wicket-taking spells. Yes, there can be frustration for bowlers when batsmen can get lucky with dropped catches or even playing and missing and even the odd leg-before appeals going against them, but it is here that bowlers need to stay calm and not show their exasperation which only helps the batsmen to believe that all he needs to do is stay a bit longer and the bowler will spend himself with expressing his annoyance. In the second innings at Nagpur he once again let his feelings get in the way and so wasn’t quite able to reproduce the superb deliveries he bowled in the first innings.
Like Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman let their bat do the talking, Sreesanth also should learn to let the ball talk for him. He is too good a bowler to get distracted by other issues. The same goes for Ishant and while it is understood that new ball bowlers have to be aggressive and sometimes show it to the opposition, it is not easy to stay focused on your bowling if that is not the way a player has played his cricket before he breaks into international ranks. What the Nagpur Test showed was that Sreesanth and Ishant get lifted by each other’s performances and get goaded into bowling better. This is healthy competition and needs to be fed by the think-tank for the Indian team’s benefit.
India may have missed out on the chance to see how well Amit Mishra is bowling by stubbornly sticking to six batsmen and thus struggling till the last Test to post a win over the number 8 ranked team in the world. Leg-spinners don’t need any help from the pitch since they rely on loop and guile and can turn the ball on any surface. Mishra’s type of bowling is not often encountered by teams like New Zealand, England and South Africa, so he would have been an asset if only he had been given a chance in the Tests against the Kiwis. Now he is out of the squad which has been expanded to 17 to accommodate a player with hardly any wickets even in the plate division of the Ranji Trophy and who will be a glorified net bowler at best in South Africa.
Still it’s been a winning start to the season and hopefully it will culminate in bagging cricket’s biggest prize, the ICC World Cup in April 2011.