Though, it’s early days, just two T20 games to be precise, but this India-South Africa series has followed a familiar pattern. As one would expect, South African pacers and Indian spinners have dominated most periods of play. It’s a trend that started way back in November, 1991 when the two nations met for the first time. It’s an old script but it is still engrossing. The fans have seen such contest before but the T20 teasers featuring furious pacers and wily spinners promises an engrossing ODIs and Tests in the coming months.
Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel had an intimidating aura and certain game-changers. At Dharamsala and Cuttack, the new-look SA pace pack showed that it had in them to continue the legacy. Kagiso Rabada, Chris Morris, Kyle Abbott and Albie Morkel instilled fear in the minds of Indian batsmen. Rookie Rabada took just one wicket but he has softened up the Indian batters with his pace and bounce, especially in the second match. After a slow start, the South African quicks recovered well at the backend of the Indian innings in Dharamsala. In Cuttack, they worked as a unit to humiliate Indian batting. Collectively, Rabada, Morris, Abbott and Albie Morkel have already taken nine wickets. For South African fans, and also for a neutral, the sight of the ball taking off after pitching and wicket-keeper jumping high in the air to collect the ball were delightful.
The hosts’ response had to be spin, Ravi Ashwin to put it categorically.
In Barabati on Monday, the off-spinner became India’s highest wicket-taker (29) in T20 internationals, surpassing Irfan Pathan (28). But that’s just a footnote to what he can offer in the Test series. MS Dhoni pointed out yesterday that these T20 fixtures shouldn’t be seen in isolation. His South African counterpart Faf du Plessis agreed. Both maintained that this is the start of a long journey that culminates in five-day contests. The teams will carry forward the positives from here to the ODIs and then to red-ball cricket. And bowling-wise, the Tamil Nadu man is India’s only positive with four wickets at an economy rate of 6.25. Ashwin has accounted for 51 scalps over the last eight months across formats — 31 in five Tests at 23.29, 20 in 12 ODIs at 25.10 and four in two T20 internationals at 12.50.
More to come
Steyn and (Morne) Morkel has joined the South Africa squad in Kolkata but will be seen in action after the T20s. With Rabada alongside them, the visitors will have fantastic depth as far as fast bowling is concerned. “I had never played with Rabada before today and watched him at the warm-up before the first game. I could honestly say that in my 16 years of first-class career, I haven’t seen anyone like him at the age of 19. I grew up seeing a young Dale Steyn come through the ranks. Rabada has got serious heart, and got serious bounce. He hit 150 today. You don’t often see that. He’s going to be a fantastic prospect for South Africa and win many games. He’s one of those guys with special talent. You can’t coach what he has got. He’s just a natural talent,” Albie Morkel said after the T20 series victory. India, however, can counter the pace threat with spin punch, thanks to Ashwin. Limited-overs cricket puts restrictions on the bowlers. Test match allows them to show off their full repertoire. We’ve to wait for a month to enjoy the real showdown between pace and spin.
Not that India would be light in their fast bowling department for the Tests. Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron can consistently bowl at 140kph. Mohammed Shami’s return will be a huge bonus. But the spinners would still be at the forefront because it’s all about exploiting the weakness of the opposition against the turning ball. Amit Mishra’s inclusion is likely to make Ashwin even more potent. Mishra is in the limited-overs squad as well but Dhoni is a tad iffy to play him, especially in T20s, for the leggie is a little slower through the air. Also, the first two matches were played at smaller grounds that didn’t have 75-yard boundaries.
Mishra, however, has made himself a certainty in Tests after his exploits in Sri Lanka (15 wickets in three matches at 15.00) where he worked up a very good partnership with Ashwin. Spinners, too, hunt in pairs and India haven’t found one after Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. Ashwin and Mishra raise hopes.
So, from the spectators’ point of view, the final T20 in Kolkata might be only of academic interest. But in the grand scheme of things, it is the continuation of a process. The teams will have the opportunity to try different combinations with an eye on the more important battles ahead. And Dhoni might just be tempted to see what his wrist spinner brings to the table.