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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How to tame the Saffers in their own den?


In a few days time, the number one side in test cricket India would lock horns with the number two side South Africa for test supremacy. It promises to be a mouth watering contest between the top two teams in the rankings. I do expect a closely fought series, though it would have been better, if it was a four match series instead of it being a three match series.

I am sure that already about 1000's of previews must have been written on the upcoming series South Africa. To be frank, I am bored of writing previews, so this time around, I will look at why South Africa is known as a fortress for visiting teams and how can a visiting team upset the applecart and defeat South Africa in their own den?

South Africa is a fortress 


India are ranked the number one side as per the ICC rankings, but they have a task on their hands as for most teams playing the Saffers in their own den is like being confronted by a fortress. Since their re-introduction to test cricket in 91/92, the only team which has consistently defeated the Saffers is Australia. Australia haven't just defeated them, but I would rather say that they have been able to dominate South Africa as since 93/94, they have only lost three dead rubber matches in South Africa. Even in 93/94, South Africa were able to just draw a series against Australia. The only other team to succeed in South Africa was England in 04/05. England had a good side at that time as after beating South Africa, the same team went onto do the unthinkable and that was to beat the all conquering Aussies in 05.

For rest of the teams though, it has been a different story as none of them have been able to win a series in South Africa. Especially the subcontinent teams have really struggled in South Africa. Pakistan have won a couple of matches and India won their first match in South Africa in 06/07, but neither of them could win a series in South Africa. There is hope, as in recent times South Africa have looked a bit more vulnerable at home. Even when India were struggling in 06/07, they won a match at Wanderers, Pakistan too won a match in 06/07, the struggling Windies side won a match at Port Elizabeth in 07/08, the Aussies weren't at their best when they defeated South Africa in 08/09 and last year, England could have won the series, but the Saffers came back strongly by winning the last test at Wanderers to draw the series 1-1. When it comes to subcontinental teams, a combination of not just extra pace and bounce, but also a touch of sideways movement is a hurdle which they have struggled to overcome.

Blueprint of South Africa's success at home


So what is the secret behind South Africa's success at home? It doesn't take rocket science to understand that they have played better cricket than most teams at home, but there are a few key factors which perhaps makes them a better unit than most other sides at home.

I do believe one of the major factors for South Africa's success at home is, over the years, they have consistently produced a battery of hit the deck bowlers, who seem to be manufactured in a factory in Capetown or Durban. Let it be the metronomic Mathews, Macmillan, Nel, Hayward or even the likes of Elworthy, they all tended to bowl back of a length and just wide of off-stump. None of them would give the opposition a chance to play the cut shot as they rarely ever bowled short and wide. In the end, the batsmen would get frustrated and lose his wicket. Actually, I may also include Shaun Pollock as only early in his career was he nippy and had a dangerous bouncer, but as the years went by, he sacrificed pace to become another of those robotic hit the deck medium pacer. Make no mistake that Saffers have also produced a few genuine strike bowlers like Donald, Schultz,(for a very brief period) Pollock,(early in his career) Steyn and to a lesser extent Ntini, but their ability to produce back up seamers, who specialise in bowling back of a length has surely helped them to do well.

The Saffers have usually treated the spinners as second class citizens. Even if they pick a spinner, he would likely play the role of a defensive bowler, someone who can do the holding job by restricting the batsmen from scoring runs. Paul Harris is a very good example of a bowler, who mainly bowls from over the wicket and  looks to do a holding job.Even when they picked a spinner, who is slightly more attacking like "Frog in the blender" Paul Adams, they used him in a defensive mode. I do remember well respected former crcketers like Simpson and Benaud being critical of the then captain Cronje for forcing the chinaman bowler Adams to bowl from around the wicket with negative fields in the series in Australia in 97/98.

South Africa have tended to pack their batting line-up with all-rounders. Unlike most sides, South Africa in the past have gone in with couple or sometimes even three all-rounders in a game. Now, neither Klusner nor say Boje may have great records as all-rounders, but players like Klusner were a vital cog in the Saffer side, especially at home. In the past, the opposing captain knew that even if his main bowler takes the wicket of say Boucher and Pollock, there would be either Klusner or Boje waiting in the wings. In the end, the visiting team's  key fast bowler would just get dead tired as it isn't a child's play to bowl for a long-time on those hard wickets of South Africa as it can hurt a fast bowler's ankle and knee. A player like Klusner would take advantage of it and flog the tiring attack to all corners of the ground. So, even if a visiting team made early inroads into the Saffer batting line-up, they always knew that battery of all-rounders may just take the game away from them with their power-hitting. Of course, they have always tried to show, who is the boss in the field, especially against subcontinental teams with their fielding.

1)a) Australia's success in South Africa


The general feeling among fans and experts is that Australia's success in South Africa was due to them having a great side in the past, but there is no doubt in my mind that they carefully studied that tactics of South Africa and out-thought them.

Top-order-One of the key reasons for Australia's success is, their top-order batsmen have been able to counter the strategy of the Saffer quicks by taking calculated risks which in turn has left the Saffer captains pressing the panic button.

South African captains, let it be Wessels, Cronje, Pollock, or for that matter Smith love to have control over a match by squeezing the opposition with their battery of seamers, but against Australia, it has flopped miserably. The best example I can think of would be the 01/02 series when the likes of Haydos, Langer and Punter consistently ripped apart the Saffer seam attack with their aggressive batting. In the series played in 01/02, Haydos averaged 61.8 and his S/R was 65.88, Langer averaged just 30 yet his S/R was 93.82 and finally, Punter averaged 77.25 with a S/R of 76.48. The calculated risks taken by the top-order paved the way for the likes of Gilly and Martyn to feast on a demoralised opposition. Once the Saffers are attacked upfront, I have rarely seen a Saffer captain come up with a Plan B.

If I scratch the surface and look deeper into it, I can see how important the assault by the top-order was. In the first test at Wanderers, Haydos scored 122 at a S/R of 64.55, Langer though scored only 28, he did it in just 31 balls and Punter got his 40 only in 56 balls. The result was, the likes of Gilly, Martyn and even Junior, who was coming to the end of his career came up against a confused team as their highly successful tactic of bowling back of a length wasn't successful. On expected lines, both Gilly and Martyn made a mincemeat of the opposition attack with Gilly even getting the fastest double hundred at that time. Yes, it is always great to have a player like Gilly at seven, but it was the top-order which paved the way for the likes of Martyn and Gilly to attack a confused bowling line-up by scoring at a fair clip.

In the second test again the top-order came to the party and that too with Australia chasing a rather stiff target of 331. Langer got his 58 runs in 74 balls, Haydos got 96 in 141 balls and Punter got a century in 160 balls. The Aussies won that match by five wickets and wrapped up the series even before the final match of the series.

Australia followed a similar pattern in 08/09 as both the young Phil Hughes and Punter played aggressive cricket by taking on the Saffer quick bowlers. Phil Hughes was brutal as he got couple of centuries and ended up with 415 runs at an average 69.16 with a S/R of almost 60. Punter couldn't do as well as Hughes, but he too got his runs at a good S/R of 62.87. I still remember Punter's knock of 83 in the first test at Wanderers, when in-spite of Australia losing a few early wickets, he didn't slow down, but made  a fine half century. For the umpteenth time, when a few top-order batsmen took the attack to the Saffer camp their captain seemed to be bereft for ideas. It was clear that when Hughes got both those centuries, the Saffer quicks Morkel and Steyn were out of sorts as instead of following Hughes and bowling short, both were feeding to Hughes's strength by bowling short and wide. Smith could have tried plan B of introducing a spinner in the first test at Wanderers, but the stubborn Smith kept giving the seamers the ball. He  finally gave Harris the chance to bowl and guess what? it took mere fourteen deliveries for Harris to dismiss Hughes. Incidentally in the final test, the lone spinner in the Saffer camp Harris got the wicket of Hughes in both the first and the second innings.

The only time the Australian top-order struggled to come to grips against the disciplined Saffer attack was in 96/97. The reason for it was, their captain Taylor was out of touch and Haydos was confronted by a quick bowler called Donald, but the middle-order of Waugh twins and Blewett rallied around the top-order by playing crucial knocks. The older Waugh and Blewett came up with what turned out to be a match winning partnership at Wanderers and Junior played a special knock on a dicey track at PE.

b) England's triumph in 04/05

 The only other team to beat South Africa in their own backyard since their re-introduction to test cricket was England in 04/05. Yet again the openers were the key to success as Strauss amassed 656 runs with three hundreds to his name. His partner Trezza made 448 runs with two hundreds to his name.Yes, neither of them scored as quickly as the Aussie batsmen, but strike-rates of over 50 in South African conditions isn't bad either. I still remember that mammoth partnership of 282 between the two for the first wicket at Durban.The Saffers had got a seizable first innings lead, but Trezza and Strauss turned the match on its head with that huge partnership as suddenly England were able to score well in excess of 500 and South Africa had to bat on the last day. In the game at Wanderers, Trezza perhaps decided it is time to smash the disciplined bowling attack to smithereens as he got 180 at a S/R in excess of 70.The Saffers including their  captain Smith yet again looked lost as the seamers Pollock, Ntini and Kallis kept bowling back of a length and Trezza continued to make merry.


Actually, even in the shorter formats of the game Smith has come across as a rigid captain. Can anyone remember him using Steyn in the middle overs, though he is a strike bowler in the T/20 WC in West Indies?   I wonder, whether Saffer captains write all the tactics in a piece of paper before coming to the ground and continue to follow it as the holy bible.


2) Wrist spinners

 Mark Taylor took a huge gamble in 96/97 by using Bevan as a frontline spinner as he thought that Saffers are good against finger spinners, but can struggle against wrist spinners.He was heavily criticised for picking Bevan, but his hunch worked as Bevan was deadly, especially against the lower order batsmen of South Africa. The all-rounders  in the Saffer camp were a menace for opposition teams, but Taylor's gamble of picking Bevan did the trick as none of them could get going against him. In-fact, during the first test at Wanderers, Cronje seemed very confident of avoiding defeat as they had a very long batting line-up and the track was flat. Unfortunately for him, Bevan got the last four wickets within four or five overs as Australia crushed Saffers by an innings and 196 runs!! Ponting tried the same tactic in 08/09 at Capetown as they selected a leg spinner in McGain, but if a spinner can't land too many deliveries and continues to bowl full-tosses, a captain can't be blamed. It maybe first test nerves for Mcgain, but he was very poor at Capetown in 08/09.

So, what can India do to win in South Africa?


I don't think anyone can deny that just like other subcontinental teams, India have an abysmal record in the Rainbow nation as they have won only one out of the twelve tests they have played. So, what are the reasons for India's poor performance in the Safferland? A few may point out that India  have rarely been able to muster a decent bowling attack to take twenty wickets away from home, but if I see the records, it is clear that India's much vaunted batting line-up has flopped miserably in South Africa.

To be fair to the Indian batsmen most of their recent success away from home has been built on back of huge scores made by the likes of Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and co. which in turn has given the slightly inferior bowling attack, the chance to attack the opposition, but that hasn't been the case in South Africa. It is obvious that top-order of India has been blown away in the past by the disciplined Saffer pace attack.

If I look at the past averages of some of the top-order batsmen, it doesn't make for good reading. Let it be in 92/93, 96/97, 01/02, or in 06/07, the Saffers have been able to do what they love the most, to squeeze the opposition batsmen into making mistakes by bowling back of a length. For a cricket connoisseur, it isn't great to watch, but there is no denying the fact that they have mastered the art of hitting the deck to near perfection.

In 92/93, the pace trio of Srinath, Kapil and Prabakar as well as the lone spinner at that time Kumble were able to bowl out the Saffers for reasonably low scores, but just look at the averages of the  top-order  batsmen.

Ajay Jadeja

Average- 24.75
S/R-32.56

Shastri

Average -11.8
S/R-14.32

Manjrekar

Average-23.2
S/R-24.42

The Saffers must have really loved bowling to batsmen as negative as Shastri and Manjrekar. The top-order clearly played into South Africa's hands with their negative approach. The only Indian batsmen, who perhaps took up the challenge was Kapil Dev as he averaged over 40 and made a stunning hundred at Port Elizabeth, but the top-order just wasn't good enough as India lost the series.

A similar pattern followed in 96/97 with India picking couple of  openers, who perhaps weren't test standard in Raman and Rathore. More than a few would pick Rathore in their worst X1 of all time. Again the likes of Srinath and Prasad did well with a ball in hand, but they lacked a third seamer and of course, the top-order was again poor. In 06/07, Sehwag tried to do something about it as he scored his runs at a S/R of 66.48, but he could average only 26.44. Yes, it is great that he tried to break the shackles of the disciplined Saffer attack by going after the bowling, but that isn't enough as in test matches, 20's and 30's aren't good enough. There is no doubt that India's chances of winning the series this time around hinges on whether S'wag can not just score quickly, but can he get big scores like Haydos, Trezza and Strauss. The one advantage he has got is, at last India seem to have found a partner for him in Ghambir. Ghambir is a competent batsman, but sometimes in an attempt to match Sehwag, he has thrown his wicket away.

It isn't just Sehwag  though, who has struggled as rest of the batsmen too haven't been at their best in South Africa. Dravid averages just 33.6 and his S/R is in 30's. The only time he really did well was when he scored a 100 at Wanderers in 96/97, but that came in a dead rubber. The Saffers won't mind bowling to Dravid as it suits them well. Even the great Tendulkar hasn't been at his best in SA as he averages just around 40 in the Safferland. He made a magnificent hundred at Capetown in 96/97, when he perhaps got fed up by the failure of the top-order batsmen and decided to go after the bowling. SRT also got a 100 at Bloemfontein in 01/02, but other than that he has been disappointing. The one man I haven't talked about is Very Very Special Laxman. In-spite of batting against the older ball he averages 41.11. To be fair to Laxman, he looks much better when the ball comes onto the bat on hard wickets of South Africa and Australia. If I am the captain, I would take the gamble of batting Laxman at three and Dravid at six as the Saffers won't be able to control the game, but I don't see that happening. Anyway, it is perhaps the last chance for the golden generation of Indian batting line-up consisting of stalwarts like Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and maybe even Sehwag to prove their worth in the Rainbow nation.

In cricketing circles, there is a lot of talk about how can India take twenty wickets, but assuming that Zaheer would be fit, I see them doing reasonably well. Both Sharma and Sreesnath can blow hot and cold, but the major worry is Harbhajan. On South African pitches, it is difficult for a spinner to take wickets. Either a spinner should be a decent wrist spinner, or should be able to beat the batsman in the air like Swann did on a good batting track at Durban in 09/10. In the past, the hard-working Kumble kept India in the game by taking crucial wickets in South Africa. In 92/93, he took 18 wickets at 25.94 and in 06/07, he 14 wickets at just 24.71. In-fact, he played a key role in India's first ever win at Wanderers in 06/07 by taking five wickets for just 56 runs. The only other way to take twenty wickets is perhaps by having a four pronged pace attack, but the caveat is, all four bowlers should be good. England won the series in 04/05 as the bowling attack consisted of four fine quick bowlers.

If I look at the opposition, India would be happy that unlike before, Saffers don't seem to have good back up seamers and neither do they have the likes of Pollock, Klusner and Macmillan to come down the order and destroy opposition pace attacks. Neither Tsotsobe nor Parnell are traditional hit the deck bowlers, especially Tsotsobe looks to swing the ball and I don't think he would worry the Indian batsmen. Ryan McLeran can do better as his bowling is better suited to Saffer wickets. Actually, I am not even convinced of Morne Morkel as he can blow hot and cold.

The Saffers have also come across as a team which seems to have a fear of losing as even when they need to go for the kill, they rarely do it. I can instantly think of couple of examples. In 04/05, England were 2-1 up going into the last match at Centurion, but the tactics employed by the Saffers were weird as  Kallis took a long-time before he got going.  In the end, South Africa declared, but England were left with just 44 overs to bat and yet they lost four wickets in those 44 overs. The key point to look at is, it was South Africa who were 2-1 down in the series. Just recently against Pakistan, the Saffers were already ahead by 150 runs after the completion of the first innings, but in the second innings instead of going for a win, the batsmen seemed to be intent on getting some batting practice. How else can you explain Prince getting 47 of 97 balls, Kallis 10 of 37 balls and Boucher 15 of 40 balls? It seemed like a team that was thinking of de-accelerating as the likes of Amla and De Villiers were aggressive at the start of the innings. In the end, they only got 67 overs to bowl at Pakistan and even the likes of Roberts, Marshall, Holding and Garner may have struggled to take ten wickets on that flat pitch at Dubai in just 67 overs.

Finally, in simple words, it can be called as the final frontier for India as South Africa is one place India have struggled big time. For India to win, they need their much vaunted batting line-up to fire. If the batsmen, especially the one and only Sehwag gets struck into the Saffer camp, they have a chance as India can get big scores and in the past Saffers have crumbled under pressure. You don't need to look any further than the game at Durban or Calcutta, when the Saffer batting line-up crumbled.

(Caution-A Saffer fan may not like the article but maybe it can be sent to Gary Kirsten? only if he is thinking of helping his former team)

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