Thursday, December 26, 2013

Key Questions - South Africa vs India at Kingsmead

After witnessing an exhilarating test match at the Wanderers, South Africa and India are back in action after a three-day break in the series decider at Kingsmead. It’s hard to determine who the favourites for this match are, and there is plenty of intrigue heading into this exciting test. The following are some key questions that I believe will be crucial in determining the result of the match.

How will Kingsmead play?

I remember watching India’s tour to South Africa in 1996. There were two abiding memories of that tour - Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammed Azharuddin’s scintillating centuries in a losing effort at Newlands, and Allan Donald’s complete annihilation of India’s batting line-up in Durban. Donald claimed nine wickets in a terrific exhibition of pace bowling, as South Africa bundled out India for 100 and 66. On completion of the match I confidently told my cricket-crazy uncle that Kingsmead was a faster wicket than the WACA in Perth.

Fast forward 17 years, and the nature of the pitch has changed to the extent that many believe conditions are more favourable for India. After being a fortress for so long, South Africa have lost their last four tests at the venue. The excellent Firdose Moonda provided some excellent hypotheses on cricinfo as to why this has been the case for the home team.

Amongst wickets in South Africa, it certainly is the most conducive to spin, however I still believe if the fast bowlers get it right, their performances will be decisive. It’s also going to be crucial for the batsmen on both sides to play the conditions well, as one big total often tends to be the difference at Kingsmead.

The Kallis factor?

The buildup to the match has been completely overshadowed by Jacques Kallis’ rather sudden decision to retire from test cricket. Kallis’ retirement from the longest form of the game presents several questions for South Africa to address in the long-term.

In the immediacy however, South Africa have an important test series to win. Kallis himself will want to bow out with a memorable performance, while his teammates should be inspired enough to ensure their talisman departs the game in whites with a win.

MS Dhoni’s men won’t be too sentimental, as they have suffered at the hands of Kallis on many occasions before. If Dhoni wants to inspire his fast bowlers he would do well by showing footage of India’s last test at Kingsmead, where India’s attack had Kallis hopping on the back foot and fending balls into the slip cordon.

Will Ashwin make an impact?

India’s pace bowlers were superb at the Wanderers, and one has to wonder if the visitors would have won the first test if Ravichandran Ashwin had been more effective. There were certainly some great deliveries on offer, but against one of the best batting line-ups in the world playing in home conditions, Ashwin became the release for South Africa’s top order. Durban is expected to provide more assistance than Johannesburg, and India can certainly get a foothold on the game if Ashwin takes advantage and exploits conditions that should suit him better.

Tahir or Peterson?

Sticking on the theme of spinners, South Africa have a decision to make between Imran Tahir and Robin Peterson. If the evidence of the first test is anything to go by, it shouldn’t be a difficult decision for Graeme Smith and the South African think tank. Tahir bowled his customary quota of full tosses and short-pitched deliveries, and the Indian batsmen didn’t need an invitation to take full toll of the leg spinner. Robin Peterson doesn’t spin the ball as much, but South Africa rely on their spinners to primarily hold one end, and the southpaw’s greater control serves the needs of his team better than the erratic Tahir.

Will Amla come good in front of his fans?

Russell Domingo said it best when he claimed that Hashim Amla has now been in form for the best part of three years. Amla not scoring a fifty in either innings was as surprising as the number three getting bowled in both innings after leaving deliveries. It’s not often that Amla goes two consecutive games without offering substantial runs, but by the same token Kingsmead has been Amla’s poorest ground in terms of test runs in South Africa. If Amla can finally get a big score in front of his home fans, South Africa will likely have the upper hand. However, if India manage to get Amla out cheaply again, they will have taken a significant step towards their first series victory in South Africa.

Abbott or Kleinveldt?

This might turn out to be a redundant question as all indications are that Morne Morkel has actually recovered in time for the match after his horrible ankle injury at the Wanderers. If Smith has to make a game day decision in the event that Morkel is declared unfit for Boxing Day, the choice is between Rory Kleinveldt and Kyle Abbott. South Africa generally veer towards the safe, and might trust Kleinveldt’s experience. However, Kleinveldt has had a tendency in his nascent career to pitch excessively short, and after being guilty of not making the Indian batsmen play in Johannesburg, it might not be the best decision. While playing the inexperienced Abbott might be a gamble, he did take seven wickets on his test debut at Kingsmead last year, and is in great form on the domestic circuit.

Can India’s seamers maintain their standards?

In the eyes of many seasoned observers, India’s fast bowlers outperformed their South African counterparts in the first test. Zaheer Khan proved that all the fitness work he did during the French summer was worth it, as he bowled over after over of nagging line and length which troubled the South African batsmen consistently. Mohammed Shami mixed his pace really well, and surprised the South African batsmen with his variety. Ishant Sharma delivered his best test match performance for India in a long time, generating bounce and late movement. The question is whether they can do it again four days later? Getting India’s pacers to deliver at a consistent level is a tough ask during the best of times, but to do so after 5 sessions in which they conceded 450 runs on a wearing pitch is another matter altogether. The trio of pace bowlers will be hoping more than anyone else, that Dhoni wins the toss and chooses to bat.

Which team has the mental edge?

The dominant question since the conclusion of the gripping first test has been which team has the mental edge? After all the talk of aggression by the South African bowlers, how will they feel about the ease with which India’s top order negotiated them? Did South Africa miss a golden opportunity to gain the psychological edge by not going for a world record win? Did Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander exhibit nerves and fear by going for the draw when 16 runs were needed of 18 balls? How will India feel after drawing a test they dominated for four days? What does it say about the quality of the attack after not only failing to get ten wickets across five sessions but almost conceding a world record target of 458? Was Dhoni terrified of losing when he sent all nine outfielders to the boundary in the penultimate over of the match?

There are simply too many questions to which answers won’t be found for years to come. In the short term, both Dhoni and Smith have the vital task of motivating their players for a crucial decider. Considering the fact that neither captain took the initiative when the game was there for the taking, could a situation arise whereby we see an attritional test match with neither team possessing the courage to take the risks that are needed to win a match with so much at stake? It certainly can’t be discounted.
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