Some years ago when England were playing India at Bristol, Nasser Husain asked, as indeed did Michael Atherton in the last Champions Trophy, which of the two teams on the ground was playing at home. The air smelt of an Indian kitchen and the beats playing in the crowd seemed to come out of a wedding in Delhi.
Now South Africa don’t have the numbers to create that impact, and I suspect they aren’t as overtly nationalistic, but as many players in their ranks as in those of the opposition, will feel at home playing cricket. Indeed, it came as no surprise to me that some South African players have played more T20 games in India than they have at home!
The IPL has been extraordinary on that count and by the limited definition of T20 cricket, the Chinnaswamy Stadium is as much home to AB de Villiers as it is to Virat Kohli, Chepauk belongs almost as much to Faf du Plessis as it does to MS Dhoni. Admittedly, home advantage doesn’t count for much in T20 cricket unless you are playing on slow, low pitches that the Eden Gardens sometimes throws up. And so, it would be fair to say that neither team starts as favourites over the first three games.
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It is a format in which statistics have still to mean much for there is so little of international cricket, and so much of club cricket where teams can present varying strengths, especially with the ball. And with most encounters being one-off, or occasionally two matches, you don’t really get into the mood of it either. This, for example, is India’s first three game series but to drive home the point about statistics, probably the best in the business, on qualitative judgement, fails miserably when confronted by numbers. After 61 internationals, AB de Villiers averages 22.38 and has a strike rate of 125!
T20 cricket is all about balance to a side with an ideal combination providing for nine batting and seven bowling options. Remember anyone who can give you two overs fairly regularly is a bowling option!
And this is where India might struggle to get it right unless they have a surprise up their sleeve. Of the five batsmen who pick themselves, Dhawan, Rohit, Kohli, Raina and Dhoni, there are two, maybe three, overs available.
It means No.6 should be able to help with the ball and No.7 and No.8 should be handy with the bat. If you want to play either Rahane or Rayudu then, you are struggling on that count.
Ideally you want the next three to bat and if India play Harbhajan, Axar Patel and Ashwin, that need is satisfied to some extent though, with that line up, there would be a temptation to preserve wickets! But if you want to play the leg spinner, Amit Mishra, for say, Harbhajan, the batting, certainly the T20 definition of it, starts looking a bit thin.
Ideally, one of those three should have batted in the top six and so India might have to look at the option of batting Stuart Binny at No.6 and getting a couple of overs in mid innings out of him.
Most good IPL teams are complete with ten players which allows them the luxury of playing a floater in the order; someone who is free to make merry in the last three or four overs if needed and who, if he doesn’t bowl, is plus in the field.
This is how KKR used Suryakumar Yadav very well and Mumbai Indians found Hardik Pandya. That kind of player is redundant if you are certain that one of the top order is batting into the 20th over though that could also mean more caution is exercised at the top. India’s batting is full of people who play in the top order for their IPL sides which is why I wonder if India will push Raina, an outstanding No.3 for CSK, as the designated finisher, maybe from No. 5 with Harbhajan playing that free attacking game, like I suspect, he was mandated to do by Mumbai Indians. It isn’t the ideal combination and so India will have to keep looking for a top six man who can bank 4 overs.
While T20 might seem to be a slightly festive start to a long tour, India could win a few crucial points if they win this series. South Africa are here for two and a half months and while travel and stay are fairly comfortable at most places, it can still get difficult. If however, you aren’t winning, it can get arduous and a team that is thinking of home is an easier opponent. India have suffered from that on long tours overseas and have the opportunity of benefiting from it at home now.