India vs South Africa: Unequal music

Vishal Menon
South African cricket team player David Miller (left) with batting coach Lance Klusener during a practice session, in Dharamshala. (Source: PTI)

IF you were at the picturesque HPCA Stadium in Dharamshala on Saturday morning, you would have seen the South African team working up a sweat after an intense practice session in muggy conditions. But, very likely, you would have failed to recognise most of their players.

To be certain, the current squad has its share of IPL regulars, namely their T20 captain Quinton de Kock, pacer Kagiso Rabada and the dashing middle-order stroke-maker David Miller. The rest, however, are a motley bunch who have represented their team on several A tours to India in the recent past. Even their newly appointed coach, Enoch Nkwe, who is called the interim director, is as anonymous as many in this new-look team. Nkwe s appointment was part of a slew of changes that were brought about in South African cricket following their team s World Cup debacle in England.

Barely two months into his new job, Nkwe has an arduous task in front of him: Galvanise this bunch into the force that teams from South Africa traditionally are. That his first assignment is playing India in India makes it a baptism by fire. In fact, ahead of their T20 here in Dharamshala on Sunday, the first of a three-match series, he admitted to enduring sleepless nights in a bid to find the right formula for his side.

What has compounded matters for him and South Africa is series of high-profile retirements in recent times: JP Duminy, Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Imran Tahir (though the 40-year-old has still made himself available in the game s shortest format, even as he has chosen to hang his boots in Tests and ODIs). This, together with a steady outflow of players to green pastures abroad, has led to a serious vacuum in talent in the country.

Surprisingly enough, all-rounder Chris Morris, who is currently in England, playing for Hampshire in the Vitality T20 blast was overlooked, so too were top-order batsmen Aiden Markram and Theunis de Bruyn, and fast bowler Lungi Ngidi. A culmination of these factors makes this team perceptibly short on confidence and without the aura of some of their predecessors who have toured India in the past. Just to put things in perspective, Rabada and Miller are the only players in the team who were part of the touring party that came to India in 2015 and won the T20 and ODI legs.

If South Africa are a team in flux, their opponents, under the leadership of Virat Kohli, have been an irresistible outfit across formats, winning just about everything that has come their way. Their World Cup semifinal loss to New Zealand at Old Trafford feels like a minor blip. Since then, they have decimated West Indies in the recently concluded Tests and limited-overs series in the Caribbean. In that sense, this three-match T20 series is a battle of unequals on paper. South Africa are diffident and frantically searching for inspiration, while India exude a sense of invulnerability.

A bomb disposal squad scans the playing field in Dharamshala on Saturday. India face South Africa in the first T20I here on Sunday. (PTI)

Target: 2020 World Twenty20

This series will also help both teams chalk out the roadmap for the World T20, scheduled to be held Down Under in October 2020. Ahead of the series opener, Miller put it aptly: This is a young side, and we ve got a lot of energy in this squad. There are a lot of guys who have played a lot of cricket, either in the A side or in domestic cricket. So, this series could be a great stepping stone for us to make a mark.

Despite Miller s optimism, this inexperienced side will have their task cut out. There will be tricky surfaces and wily bowlers to contend with, and the Proteas will have to do so under harsh weather at noisy stadiums. These are things that not a lot of players in the current South African side would have experienced before.

India, who are scheduled to play in 27 T20s till the showpiece event in Australia next year, have their eyes set on the one that follows in 2021 as well. Unlike South Africa, who has witnessed an acute talent flight, Kohli s side is blessed with a surfeit of gifted players. This hands them with an opportunity to try out some of the younger players in different roles, while keeping their key players fresh for the rigourous home season ahead.

For the second consecutive T20 series, the team management has decided to rest their bowling lynchpin Jasprit Bumrah. Even his new-ball partner Bhuvneshwar Kumar will be cooling his heels as they are replaced by Navdeep Saini, Deepak Chahar and Khaleel Ahmed. Not just the pacers, even the two wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal Kohli s trump cards in the shorter versions over the last two years have been rotated out. Instead, Rahul Chahar and Washington Sundar, and all-rounders Ravindra Jadeja and Krunal Pandya have been preferred. Kohli explained the rationale behind this move. When we had initially picked them (Chahal and Yadav), there was a lot of hue and cry. Now when they are not in the team, you are still complaining. Our plan was to give them rest and replace them with all-rounders to strengthen our batting, he said.

Nkwe, on the other hand, has placed his bets on Temba Bevuma to shore up his team s batting. On the face of it, Bevuma, 29, seems a bizarre pick because the compact batsman, with 36 Tests under his belt, has for long been pigeonholed as a long-form specialist. But Lance Klusener, the team s interim batting coach for this T20 series, defended his selection.

He recently got a century in the CSA T20 final. It s easy to pigeonhole him and say okay he plays only Test cricket. But Temba is wonderful all-round cricketer. He needs to learn a couple of options to become an all-round batsman. He is not the biggest guy, who can muscle the ball over the fence, but he has the knack of scoring runs. He has played two ODIs and has scored a hundred and a fifty, so he is a good cricketer, Klusener said.

Going forward, Nkwe will be hoping for a spark that would potentially orchestrate a turnaround in his team s fortunes. He needs to look no further than Rabada, his pace bowling spearhead. Injuries and excessive workload had blunted him in the disastrous World Cup campaign. Two months rest could be his antidote. India is where Rabada has announced himself on the international stage four years ago. His bowling could just be the catalyst for the Proteas.

India vs SA, 1st T20I Live on Star Sports 1 &3, 7 pm onwards