On the eve of this important Test,the obvious advise for the young Indian batsmen would be this: Wipe out the demoralising time at the crease during the ODI series from their collective heads. Though,on second thoughts,considering these are hardened professionals known to take giant strides after stumbling falls and not school kids playing in the Little League,the counsel to start afresh is more tame than timely.
The bigger challenge for this inexperienced Indian batting line-up at Wanderers will be to erase their muscle memory. A few facts that give strength to this argument follows.
The last time India faced fearsome pacers on lively tracks,although certainly not as formidable as Dale Steyn & Co,was about two years back in Australia. Since January,2013,most Indian batsmen presently in South Africa have played about seven times more in limited over cricket than they have in Tests. Each of the six Tests and most of the 40 plus ODI/IPL games have been played on the slow and low tracks at home,within their comfort zone. This has resulted in the batsmens feet and eyes being well programmed to react to balls that travel at modest pace and barely ever climbing above their knees.
Keeping this in mind,it is not going to be easy to forget the past over a fortnight. Rather,it will perhaps be as difficult as kicking a habit or defeating an addiction. This requires time. The ODIs,earlier this month,ushered in the early days rehab. As expected,most succumbed to their urges.
There was Virat Kohli at the start of his innings,almost subconsciously hanging his bat out to the away going balls. At home,this was his way of running the ball past gully to third man. This was how he rotated the strike. This was how he frustrated the bowlers who wanted a longer duel with him. This was how he built the plinth to his towering average. It always worked,till he reached South Africa. The first game saw him edge to slips and in second he nicked one to the keeper. On both occasions,he was playing his ever-reliable bread-and-butter tap behind square on the off-side. Indias most successful and versatile young player,famous to seamlessly toggle between formats,was done in by sharp speeds,smarter pacers and extra bounce.
Find without form
The find of 2013,opener Shikhar Dhawan,too didnt look like replicating his success at home or match his form from the Champions Trophy in England,where he was the Man of the Tournament. Dhawans initial overs act has centered around him stepping out of the crease and flowing drives through the off-side to the balls pitched marginally up. And when the length gets shorter,he launches into his trademark pulls or cuts.
During the ICC event in England,where the pitches had more life than in India,his ploy worked. With him taking the extra step,he continued to meet the ball at around his knee and find the gaps on the off-side field. But in South Africa,his pet strokes have let him down. He top-edged his favourite pull shot in one game and mis-hit the drive into the hands of point fielder. Unlike in the rest of the cricket playing world,the ball doesnt merely bounce in SA,it takes off.
Dhawan,not a first-timer to this land,is surely aware that the ball rises at an angle steeper than 45 degrees. But his muscle memory hadnt adjusted to the new time zone.
Indias other big hope,Rohit Sharma,seems to be trying the hardest but still coming short. Since he was first sighted,the games greats have marked him for his ability to judge lengths early. Here,against Steyns pace,he hasnt looked like a batsman with time at hand. He has moved his front feet to reach for the ball but this forward movement has been nervy and half-hearted. The foot sure is forward,but the transfer of weight is missing.
At the Champions Trophy,he would deal with balls pitched short with a little press forward and rock back to set himself up nicely for a fierce cut. Here,with Steyn bowling balls that first dip towards off stump and move away late at speeds well over 140 kmph,Sharma doesnt seem to have the time or the confidence to get into his usual rhythm. He has tried to defy his muscle memory,by leaving more balls than he does in India. But immediately,he no longer was the batsman who could do no wrong in India. So whats the way for the Indian batsmen? History can come in handy for them.
In 2010,then India coach Gary Kirsten,anticipated similar trouble. Insisting that the batsmen reach South Africa 10 days before the first Test,the coach,one who believed in short meetings and long net sessions,came up with a simple plan for his team to quickly adjustment to alien conditions. I want each of our batsmen to receive 2000 or 3000 balls before the Tests start, he said.
It worked,India drew the Test series. And what made Kirstens task easier was the fact that he had time and the Class of 2010-11 had the likes Virender Sehwag,Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar – war veterans with proven away records.
Time and space
The present tour party would connect more with the early travellers to South Africa the 1992 batch that was part of cricketing history. Praveen Amre,like Virat and Sharma today,was in his mid-20s,and making his Test debut then. Those days we didnt have any data on them as South Africa had just returned to the international fold. Plus we didnt have much time adjust to the conditions, says Amre. But that didnt mean Amre took the field with a blank mind. In the few net sessions the the tour party got,the Mumbai batsman made a personal check list for match days. Back foot play,right shot selection and patience, he figured would be the key to score runs here.
His reading was accurate. Theres a hundred against his name on the Kingsmead honours board to prove this point. Unlike in India,one doesnt need to reach out or go hard at the ball. In South Africa,you let the ball come to you. You try and use the pace and bounce to your advantage. This is how he kicked his habit and discovered his new self.
Rahul Dravid,who scored 148 and 81 at Johannesburg on his first tour of South Africa in 1996,too lists a few pointers that todays batsmen must store in their heads. They need to keep the short ball out of their mind and focus on the full balls,as those are the ones that get the wicket, he told ESPNCricinfo.com on the eve of the Johannesburg Test. To counter bounce,pace and movement,batsmen need find themselves in a perfect position as early as possible. Late adjustment wouldnt work in Johannesburg because of the pace of the wicket, he said. That will be the real challenge for limbs that are habituated to pose up late.
So,far from deleting their memories from the recent ODIs,Sharma,Dhawan and Kohli need to remember the lessons they have learned. At the same time they need to be true to their inner self.
The last word
As preparation to this crucial first Test,the young Indian batsmen need to listen to Mike Brearley,the philosopher who also captained England. During this years Bradman Oration,he spoke about the merits of premeditating (if only in ruling out certain options) while trusting craftsmanship and intuitive responsiveness.
On this complex task of reining the mind,Brearley has to have the last word. Like parents with children,we have to find the right balance between self-discipline and free rein. The moments when body and mind are at one… such rare states of mind are akin to being in love.