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South Africa readies to take on aggressive Indian team

Prem Panicker

21 December 1996

Both before taking the flight to South Africa, and immediately on arriving there, Indian cricket captain Sachin Tendulkar emphasised two key points regarding his side's three-Test programme against the latter nation.

One, that current wisdom, which holds that Indian batsmen are incapable of playing pace on fast, bouncy wickets abroad, could be proved wrong on this tour. And two, that the impression that the Indian attack is totally spin-centric will also need revision in course of this tour.

Tendulkar is obviously pinning a lot of faith on his young batting lineup, with Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly in the vanguard, supported by himself and a rejuvenated Mohammad Azharuddin. And the Indian skipper's aggressive mindset also stems from the exploits, during the South African tour of India which concluded earlier this month, of Indian pace spearheads Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad.

Interestingly, South Africa has made some drastic changes in the lineup that will take on India in the first Test at Kingsmead, Durban between December 26-31 and in the second Test, at Newlands, Cape Town, between January 2-6.

But first, the team lineup: Hansie Cronje (captain), Gary Kirsten (vice captain), Paul Adams, Adam Bacher, Daryll Cullinan, Allan Donald, Herschelle Gibbs, Andrew Hudson, Jacques Kallis, Lance Kluesner, Brian McMillan, Shaun Pollock and Dave Richardson.

What strikes you most in this selection are the omissions - Jonty Rhodes, Fanie De Villiers and Pat Symcox.

Rhodes' omission from the Test squad owes, apparently, to two factors - his recent injury, and the impression that his batting form is not sufficiently good to justify a place in the Test team. ``Such are Jonty's fighting qualities that I have no doubt he will be back in contention soon,'' said chairman of selectors Peter Pollock, applying some salve on the ace fielder's wounds.

Symcox's omission could owe to the fact that South Africa will be looking at pace as the main weapon in the Tests, both of which are to be played on what are traditionally hard, fast wickets. Given that it is difficult to conceive of the home team going into either Test with two spinners, Symcox was the obvious casualty with Adams being retained as the lone spinner in the squad.

What is most difficult to understand, though, is the omission of Fanie De Villiers. Those who followed the recent Protean tour of India will remember that skipper Hansie Cronje, justifying De Villiers' omission from the team for the Calcutta Test, indicated that in the opinion of the team's think tank, Fanie's bowling was not suited to the slower paced wickets of the Indian subcontinent.

The implication appeared to be that the tall fast bowler with one of the most deceptive slower deliveries in international cricket would come into his own on home pitches - but The Management appears to have decided otherwise, for whatever reason. The pace attack, thus, will be spearheaded by Allan Donald and Lance Klusener - the former having recovered from his injuries, the latter from the mauling he received at the hands of Indian batsmen during the Calcutta and Kanpur Tests, a career-best eight wicket haul in the second innings of the Calcutta Test notwithstanding.

Rather strange, this reliance on Klusener. Who, as far as we could see, is a young strapping lad who figures on using pure pace to blast opponents out, and appears rather clueless when the tactic does not work out as well as he had hoped. Klusener's bowling, in India, showed a good turn of speed but a singular lack of variety in terms of seam and swing movement, and it will be interesting to see whether, on home pitches, the greater bounce will help his 'blast them out' style of bowling.

The key to the pace equation could be Shaun Pollock, fully recovered from a heel injury that kept him out of the Indian tour. With Donald playing the role of attacking spearhead, it will probably be the aggressive, quick Pollock, already staking his claim to be ranked among the best young all-rounders in the game today, who could end up troubling the Indian batsmen more with his ability to seam and swing the ball both ways.

The 23-year-old Pollock burst on the scene with a bang when, in his international debut in a one-dayer against England in January this year, he first slammed 66 runs at a run a ball rate, then took 4/34 to help his side win the game. Building on that, he was named find of the series at the end of the England tour and though his batting record in the five Tests he has played in thus far does not match the hype, he already has 16 wickets to his name with a career-best of 5/34.

The right arm fast medium bowler went on to perform prodigies for Warwickshire in the English county season, before a hell injury ruled him out of contention for the South African tour of India. His comeback could be the most interesting development as far as the Proteas' home season against India is concerned.

While looking at the new entrants to the squad, the name of Jacques Kallis provides scope for speculation. Rated a hardhitting all rounder who bowls fast medium, Kallis has, however, not yet got a wicket to his name over 12 ODIs and two Tests. His presence in the squad, apparently, is a continuation of the team's search for a performing all-rounder, especially in context of the poor form shown by Brian McMillan in course of the Indian tour.

Yet another name that jumps out at you, from the list, is that of Adam Marc Bacher, nephew of South African cricket boss and onetime skipper Dr Ali Bacher. Adam has been in great form for Transvaal in recent times, even entering the record books as the first South African to get a double hundred and a century in a first class game. His inclusion is obviously to strengthen a batting lineup that didn't exactly distinguish himself in the Indian tour - but this in turn raises the question of where he will bat, and in whose place.

That Hudson and Kirsten will open is a given. That Gibbs and Cullinan will figure in the top half of the order is another. With Cronje, that takes the list to five. Dave Richardson makes six, Donald, Klusener and Pollock make nine, and Adams brings the rota up to ten. That leaves one spot left in the line up, with Bacher, McMillan and Kallis in contention.

What could determine the final lineup is one factor - the wicket. On a fast bouncy wicket, the S'African management could well prefer to go with the extra batsman in Bacher, trusting to the Donald-Klusener-Pollock-Adams to get the opponents out and beefing up the batting lineup in order to combat India's own increasingly pace-centric attack. On a slower wicket, South Africa could well look to beef up its bowling strength with either McMillan or Kallis, to provide support to the main bowlers.

Which brings us to the question of wickets. Kingsmead, in Durban, is by reputation and precedent a hard, firm, bouncy wicket. Intriguingly, its playing nature depends, to a considerable extent, on the position of the tide - at high tide, therefore, the water table under the pitch and playing area also rises, and aids swing and seam bowling while the wicket tends to get a shade more docile when the tide is out.

The tourists, thus, would do well to keep this factor - unique, in fact, to Kingsmead - in mind, as strategies will need to be changed in course of each day's play, as the tide conditions change.

Then there is Newlands, in Cape Town, site of the second Test. Newlands had a tendency, a while ago, to aid spin but has of late begun to develop into a standard seamer's wicket. Lost of movement for the bowler who looks to hit the seam, though there is far less of swing than obtains at Durban. For the batsman, what it means is a preponderance of front-foot play, in order to take the ball early and negate off-the-seam movement.

So that is pretty much it, as far as the S'African lineup is concerned. We will look at India's possible gameplans on Monday, by which time the tour-opening three-day game versus Eastern Province (December 21-23) at Port Elizabeth would have given us an index into how well the tourists have begun the process of adapting to the foreign locale.

Meanwhile, a last thought. Star Sports, in its promotional for the tour, had a most interesting ad - Allan Donald, in a Texasstyle cowboy hat with rain cascading off its brim.

The tagline of the ad has the pace ace saying, slit eyed in the fashion patented by the draw and shoot heroes of Western films, ``Are you wondering why it is raining in South Africa? The tradi- tion is, that it always rains before a battle!''

Judging by Tendulkar's words, and the South African lineup, one thing is for sure - there is likely to be one hell of a battle on the cards, beginning Boxing Day.

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 15:37