South Africa may not find the pitches in India conducive to their type of bowling, but the T20 series against India starting today gives both teams a competitive dress rehearsal for the T20 World Cup next month in Australia.
The Protean pace bowling unit of Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi, and Wayne Parnell is one of the best attacks amongst all the World Cup squads. South Africa won four of their five Group 1 matches in last year’s T20 World Cup, but still failed to qualify for the semi-finals because of a lower net run rate after being tied on points with Australia and England. After that, they drew a T20 series in India 2-2, won 2-1 in England, and 2-0 in Ireland, which is a creditable record.
India too are on a high after a 2-1 series win over reigning T20 world champions Australia, which has palliated the bitter taste of their Asia Cup debacle earlier this month. Under Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid, the Indians had been on a roll after the last T20 World Cup, whitewashing New Zealand, the West Indies, and Sri Lanka at home before drawing 2-2 with South Africa. Then they won in Ireland, England, and the West Indies, before their shocking exit from the Asia Cup with back-to-back losses against Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The captain and coach will be relieved that the narrow wins against Australia has helped the team regain momentum ahead of the World Cup, and will be keen to keep it going against South Africa. There’s much to be upbeat about, not the least being Virat Kohli’s innings of substance in a series-deciding run chase against a top side. Rohit Sharma has set an example as an opener with the aggressive intent he wants from every player, and it has rubbed off on everybody. Suryakumar Yadav too sparkled again after his stunning century in England that drew comparisons with the brilliant AB de Villiers.
But wins in bilateral series, which are treated more like practice games these days, can paper over the cracks. The most experienced pace bowler in the side, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, conceded 91 runs in 7 overs in the two games he played against Australia. That’s a whopping economy rate of 13 an over, and he had only one wicket to show for it. The 30 runs he conceded in his last two overs, interspersed with Harshal Patel’s 22 runs in the 18th over, helped Australia chase a mammoth target of 209 in the first T20. Then the 21 runs Kumar gave in the 18th over of the last T20 nearly put the game beyond India. In the Asia Cup, similar profligacy from Kumar at the death had cost India against Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
India’s bowling in the final overs has never been as weak as this, compounded by the rustiness of Jasprit Bumrah after a prolonged injury layoff. So in the series against South Africa, India will be looking for reassurance that young Arshdeep Singh can fulfill the promise he showed in the Asia Cup by nailing his yorkers at the death. But even if he does that, there will still be the question of whether Kumar should be in the playing 11 if he cannot bowl the death overs.
The hard, hit-the-deck type of wickets one generally encounters in Australia may not give much joy to Kumar’s gentle medium pace bowling, one that relies on swing and seam movement. This is also true for Harshal Patel, who relies on slower balls and variations. His economy rate is 9 an over since coming into the Indian team after last year’s World Cup.
That should have given an opportunity for the two reserve pace bowlers for the World Cup, Mohammed Shami and Deepak Chahar, to make a strong case during the series against South Africa. Unfortunately, Shami tested positive for covid-19 and may not be able to take part. That leaves Chahar, who has had too little cricket after a back injury kept him out of the IPL.
Suddenly, India’s pace cupboard appears bare, despite the number of pacers who made a mark over the last couple of years. Prasidh Krishna got sidelined with back spasms, and Avesh Khan’s form dipped this year, as did Mohammed Siraj’s. The tall left-arm pacer, Mohsin Khan, did not get a look-in despite his impressive bowling in IPL 2022 for Lucknow Super Giants. The fastest bowler in the IPL, Umran Malik, hasn’t got enough opportunity to channel his 150+ kmph rockets as the think tank has put its faith in bowlers who are much slower.
And it’s mysterious why Shami never got a chance to show his worth for India in T20s this year, despite helping Gujarat Titans win the IPL 2022 title. His rich experience of bowling in Australia, where he took 17 wickets in 7 matches in the 2015 ODI World Cup, has been ignored. The team may yet pay a price for this: Shami’s ability to take wickets with the new ball and bowl yorkers at the death would have been handy in Australia.
A silver lining in the cloud is that the spin bowling department has received a boost with the game-changing spells of Axar Patel. The all-round abilities of Hardik Pandya, and his newfound composure in tight situations after leading Gujarat Titans to the IPL title, will be another ace in India’s campaign. It’s just as well that he has been rested for the South Africa series, because an injury to Pandya would be a huge blow.
Looking at the series from South Africa’s point of view, skipper Temba Bavuma has a point to prove after returning to the side, following his elbow injury during his last visit to India. Bavuma’s captaincy in white ball cricket has been impressive, but his strike rate as a batsman is below par for modern T20 cricket where anchor roles don’t exist. So much so that Bavuma did not get picked by any franchise at the recent auction for South Africa’s newly launched T20 league. For the national team’s captain not to find a place in the league which will feature all his World Cup squad members is extraordinary.
While Bavuma was unsold, the highest paid player in the auction was 22-year-old hard-hitting batsman Tristan Stubbs. Next to him in the auction pecking order was left-handed batsman Rilee Rossouw, who recently returned to the South African team after a gap of six years. They will be the ones to watch in the series, alongside IPL heroes Quinton de Kock and David Miller.
It’s strange that Faf du Plessis, who is such a force in the IPL, does not figure in the South Africa side. The 37-year-old, who is fit as a fiddle and in fine form, would have bolstered South Africa’s World Cup chances were it not for his international retirement.
Nevertheless, South Africa’s batting and bowling, backed by Bavuma’s astute leadership, will be a fitting challenge for India. It’s the last chance for the team to find a winning combination, in a bid to rectify the anomaly of India failing to win a single T20 or ODI World Cup since 2011.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.