India vs South Africa: A Test of India's desire to win overseas in 2018

Since 2015, India have played 12 Tests on foreign soil. Of these, 11 were in Bangladesh (2015), Sri Lanka (2015 and 2017) and West Indies (2016). The other standalone Test was played in Australia (January 2015). It was the last game of a four-match series wherein Virat Kohli took over as full-time Test skipper from Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

While it was an obvious pivotal moment for Indian cricket, it holds additional context currently with Kohli leading the Indian team in South Africa. This tour comes on the heels of 20 Tests played at home in 2015, 2016 and 2017. During this run, India won 14 Tests and leapt up to No 1 in International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings. Yes, they are the world’s best Test side at the moment. Only thing, this tag is now up for serious scrutiny, with 12 Tests in South Africa, England and Australia in 2018-19.

“These one-and-a-half years will define this Indian cricket team. They are aware of it and are up for this challenge. If you had asked me four years ago, I would have said no,” says coach Ravi Shastri. “But this team has gained in experience. Its beauty is that it doesn’t care which team is in the opposition; it just looks at the pitch and adapts to the conditions.”

Ravi Shastri, coach, Indian team
That word “experience” is of prime importance. When India last toured here in December 2013, only five players — Dhoni, Zaheer Khan (both now retired), Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay and Ishant Sharma — out of the 17-man squad had prior experience of playing in South Africa. That number has drastically swelled up to 13 players this time around. Will this help swell up the other odd figure of only two wins in 17 Tests on South African soil (Johannesburg in 2006 and Durban in 2010)? In that light, Shastri’s words underline certain confidence in this Test side’s nucleus that has been playing together for some time now. 

“The biggest point is that over the last four years, as a unit, we have played in different parts of the world and now have the experience of playing in a variety of conditions,” says: Indian vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane. “Whatever cricket we have played on foreign soil, I would mark that as a learning curve in making me the player I am today. Whenever I am in a tough situation, I can always refer to that experience.”

Preparations for this South Africa tour stand out as a keen example then. In 2013, their practice game had been washed out and so the Dhoni-led side had resorted to mid-wicket net sessions. It served them well as they only narrowly lost the ensuing two-Test series (1-0).

The team management took up the same model this time around as well, dispensing with the scheduled two-day practice game in Paarl, instead allowing the Indian players time and freedom to chalk out individual preparatory routines.

“Everybody knows what they need to do. The individuals know what exactly are the areas they need to work on. I am working on a more open-minded approach (to scoring runs) as compared to the last time,” says opener Murali Vijay.

Back in 2013, Vijay had perfected the art of leaving as many deliveries outside the off-stump as possible. While his method provided India stable starts, it didn’t result in too many runs. On Day One of the series in Johannesburg, he had batted for 69 minutes, facing 42 balls and scoring only six runs.

“The idea is to capitalise on any opportunity to score runs because you cannot go into a Test thinking that you have to leave a certain number of balls. We need to find a balanced approach so we can counter the threat of South Africa’s pace attack,” Vijay adds.

It is an interesting concept — letting the players work on their skills in singular cocoons ahead of an important series. It sits in with Shastri’s mantra of “every game being a home game”. The players are asked to get comfortable to their surroundings without paying too much attention to the conditions on offer. Once you overcome that mental barrier, runs (or wickets, as the case may be) will come, believes the coach.

“If we decide that these are our home conditions and we find comfort in that thinking, then it becomes all about visualisation,” reflects Rahane. “Your mind starts adjusting to the difference in conditions and you carry this confidence on the field. It is a challenging mental aspect, albeit not as easy as it sounds.”

In the shadow of the Table Mountain on one side and the gale-force winds blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean on the other, Newlands (in Cape Town) is the setting for India’s challenge in the new 2018-19 overseas cycle.

As of now, there is a prevalent drought in the city, which could even affect the pitch, slowing it down considerably. If so, it definitely will make for some “home” comfort in alien conditions.

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