By Carl Jaison:
AB de Villiers has already mocked Indian bowling. Dhoni has already given him a befitting reply. But even as India seemingly deploys one of the most inexperienced teams ever, de Villiers' over-confidence regarding the 21-year old Indian jinx in South Africa might be misplaced due to the current form of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, and Shikhar Dhawan, as well as Dhoni's proven leadership traits under stress. India is also not missing Tendulkar much in this context as India's last six consecutive tournament wins were all without Tendulkar. The 21-year old jinx also means that Sachin has never been part of a victorious Indian squad in the Rainbow Nation.
Since early-2013 after having been beaten by Pakistan in a home series, India has won 6 consecutive tournaments, including the tri-nations championship against Sri Lanka and West Indies and the ICC Champions Trophy in England. Gradually, India has emerged as one of the strongest line-ups in both Test and One-Day Internationals. The transition of India from a team that had been heavily dependent on experienced players to a team that plays best collectively is a typical sequence on the road to greater success. While India has played majority of its tournaments on home soil, the real test awaits them when they lock horns with South Africa in a short away-series that promises to be a nail-biting clash.
If not for BCCI’s animosity towards South Africa (and also due to sentimental reasons), Tendulkar might well have played his last and 200th test match against South Africa. The truncated ODI series will also present India with an opportunity to defeat the South Africans in the latter’s den after 21 long years. But after a long time, India will be fielding one of its most inexperienced teams on foreign turf.
The prolonged advance of the team can be attributed to its top-order batsmen, who have contributed in almost every winning occasion. India seems to have found the right opening combination though at the expense of senior pros like Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. The current pair consisting of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan has played exceptionally well to rightfully earn their place in the team. Both look well settled at the top of the order and have complimented each other’s game in the right earnest. The international cricketing career of Rohit Sharma was drawn as a downward sloping curve, which is currently making its way up due to a range of breathtaking performances in the Champions Trophy and against Australia.
The Mumbai lad, who originally bats in the middle-order, has virtually ousted Sehwag’s chances of making a comeback by putting up a fine display of batsmanship that includes his inherently sound skills backed up by clever shot-selection. Rohit doesn’t find the short-pitched deliveries discomforting but struggles when it comes to playing the left-arm spinner, something which has also troubled Tendulkar, another Mumbaikar. The Mumbai Indians skipper is in red hot form after having scored a blistering double-century against the Aussies and he relishes playing on the bouncy wickets of South Africa.
Similarly, Shikhar Dhawan has had a fabulous season, smashing 5 centuries in the process adding to his other useful contributions at the top of the order. The prolific run-getter has also earned himself a handful of sponsorship contracts, which has surely boosted his confidence and increased his reputation in the cricketing circle. Though he plays the short-pitched deliveries out of instinct, his shot-making for such deliveries isn’t too convincing.
Virat Kohli has emerged into a refined player with the ability to adapt to any given situation. Kohli too looks in great nick after yet another fruitful year in terms of runs. The volatile- No.3 has reached 5000 runs in ODIs in very quick time, being the fastest Indian to get there.
Yuvraj Singh, on the contrary, has had a rather miserable year scoring just a solitary half-century in the last 10 ODI’s. The World-Cup winning hero hasn’t been contributing much with the ball either. The South African fast bowlers will keep in the back of their mind about Yuvraj’s struggle dealing with the rib-level scorchers!
Suresh Raina has suffered a similar fate with his last ODI ton coming way back in 2010. An attacking left-hander who goes for the big shots with impunity and clears the field with a swashbuckling flourish when at the top of his game, Raina is also equally capable of attracting applause as an electric fielder in the circle. All of this, though, is tempered with an iffy technique against the short ball, which has been mercilessly exposed in Test cricket.
Dhoni, as always, has presented a balanced report-card, either scoring well when the situation demands or failing occasionally. His captaincy record has steadily improved over the last 6-8 months which has had a positive impact on his batting. This is also the first crucial away tour against a strong team since the Test debacles against England and Australia in the latter part of 2011. The only remaining point of argument for his critics is that Dhoni hasn’t led India to victory in any major Test series since the successful tour to New Zealand and the captain would want to give a fitting reply to them.
The rise of Jadeja is certainly a heart-warming story. From being criticized for his “predictability” to being touted as the number one bowler, Jadeja’s career has got its fair share of ups and downs. The captain’s trust in his ability and skill is evident whenever Dhoni tosses the ball to him in the closing overs of the innings. However, the all-rounder is yet to make his presence felt when it comes to batting. Like his other left-handed colleagues in the team, Jadeja too presents a sorry cut while tackling the short-pitch deliveries.
Dhoni heavily relies on Ashwin to strangulate the opposition batsmen with his uncanny deliveries which more often than not restricts the flow of runs. In terms of wickets earned, Ashwin has had a rather quiet season, agreeing to play second fiddle to Jadeja. But the most promising aspect of his game has been the improvement in his batting which he takes seriously nowadays.
The pace-attack has had a mixed season with Shami Ahmed appearing as the most lethal and less erratic of all the others. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar started off well but is now struggling to pick up wickets and has also strayed in line and length especially against the left-handed batsmen. The return of Umesh Yadav augurs well for the team with the speedster being someone who can bowl accurately at a decent pace.
Though South Africa has in their ranks some of the best players around, the team has just not been able to win on a regular basis, which is clear from their No.5 position in the ODI standings. For India, it will be a test of their nerves as South Africa haven’t lost at home for a very long time and look altogether a more rejuvenated team playing on their own soil. India will be playing more foreign tours in the upcoming year so it would be a great way to start off the season on a winning note.
The euphoria around Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement was one that embedded both an emotional farewell as well as a sense of uncertainty over the possible re-incarnation of the Master Blaster somewhere in the cricketing world at some futuristic point of time. The feeling of emptiness was felt by the entire cricketing community over the loss of the treasure that ensured cricket’s glittering progress in a world scene otherwise dominated by football frenzy. The entire nation saluted the ‘Greatest Batsman of All Time’, who shattered record-breaking milestones in a career that lasted almost a quarter of a century. Unlike the unfortunate Dravid and Laxman, both of whom terminated their careers abruptly without much ado, Sachin was left awestruck by the overwhelming expressions of love and sadness exhibited by his fans. Sachin looked in fine touch during his last ever Test outing and never showed signs of faltering either in technique or decision-making. Many wondered if he could still squeeze in some more games before an impending retreat from national priorities.
Although rarely have sportspersons come out of retirement to represent their respective nations for a brief period, the magnitude of the exultation that Tendulkar received from his supporters would surely have enticed a ‘mortal retiree’ to reconsider his/her decision. But Tendulkar is ‘God‘ like. Moreover, his body is his prime advisor and he keeps reiterating this fact. Even then, what could possibly bring back Tendulkar? The answer is: Tendulkar knows that he wouldn’t have to return. As he said in his farewell speech, “The team is shaping up well, I’m confident that they will succeed in future”. Tendulkar has himself washed away that uncertain tendency that has always pervaded the minds of Indian cricket fans: Can India survive without ‘God‘?
But India is not missing Tendulkar much in this context as India's last six consecutive tournament wins were all without Tendulkar. The 21-year old jinx also means that Sachin has never been part of a victorious Indian squad in the Rainbow Nation.