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South Africa need to be careful in search of revenge

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South_Africa_pitch_seam_bounce_Test_cricketIt’s been a long wait for South African fans. Seven hundred and sixty days to be exact. Since the moment Ravichandran Ashwin picked up his 31st wicket of the series by bowling Morne Morkel on December 7th 2015, fans of the Proteas have been waiting for the day that their Asian adversaries land on their shore.

Back then, South Africa were hammered 3-0 in a four match series contested on dry and crumbling pitches that resembled the surface of the moon. That AB de Villiers was the only South African batsman to average above 30 (36.85) across the series highlights just how challenging the conditions were for the visitors.

Now the South African faithful are licking their lips at the prospect of green tops that will leave Virat Kohli and his troops hopping like frightened rabbits as they face a barrage from one of the most feared attacks in world cricket. If Nagpur, Delhi and Mohali resembled the moon, Cape Town, Centurion and Johannesburg will be as lush as the Amazon Rainforest.

But while Ottis Gibson winds up his quartet of fast men (it remains to be seen whether Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morkel will all play in the same side), he would do well to learn from history before he puts in a quiet word with the groundsmen across the three venues.

 

India has only won two Tests in South Africa from 17 played (along with 7 draws and 8 defeats). Both victories were not secured on turning dust bowls, but on tracks that ought to have favoured the home side.

 

Johannesburg, 2006. Sreesanth ran through the South African batsmen to finish with 5-40 in the first innings, bowling the hosts out for a paltry 84 (their second lowest score at home since being readmitted to international cricket) in response to the Indian’s first innings total of 249. The tourists won at a canter inside 4 days by 123 runs.

Four years later, the teams locked horns again in Durban. After watching Dale Steyn skittle out the India for 205 with a return of 6-50, Zaheer Khan (3-36) and Harbhajan Singh (4-10) had South Africa all out inside a session and a half en route to a famous 87 run victory.

 

On both occasions India batted first on wickets that were supposed to be treacherous, on both occasions it was the South Africans who struggled on lively decks and on both occasions India ran home comfortable winners. What lessons can we learn from these two victories?

 

At the Wanderers in 2006 India won the toss and bravely chose to bat first, whereas at Kingsmead Graeme Smith understandably asked his opponents to set a score after winning the toss.

Correctly calling the bounce of the coin should not automatically result in a decision to bowl first, nor can a captain bank on his batsmen coping better at a later stage of the match.

Another lesson is that express pace does not guarantee success in South Africa. Sreesanth and Khan were skilful bowlers who were able to land the ball on a consistent line and length, but they were by no means express pace.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar can’t match Morkel for height and bounce or Rabada for sheer pace through the wicket, but he is more than capable of finding an area that prevents a batsman from coming all the way forward or rocking all the way back.

With his clever tweaks of the wrist and subtle adjustments in his fingers, this young bowler could once and for all disprove the notion that Indian seamers struggle in South Africa as a result of their lack of pace.

Make no mistake; South Africa will be out for revenge when the series kicks off on Friday. A quick glance at Twitter will tell you that South African fans are baying for Indian blood, with some offering to personally transport water down to the Cape in order to ensure the Newlands strip is as green as possible.

But those eager to see a track emitting enough oxygen to clear Delhi should be careful what they wish for. This is arguably the most complete Indian seam attack to visit Africa in living memory and they will be more than equipped to extract any bounce and seam on offer.

 

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Daniel is a freelance sports journalist from Johannesburg who would always rather be watching Test ...

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