India finds itself in a situation where its results in the ICC Cricket World Cup against South Africa are the exact opposite of those against Pakistan.
It has lost all three matches to the South Africans, and needs to change that record very soon. In order to do so, India needs to dismiss three key men in the South African batting line-up cheaply – Hashim Amla, captain AB de Villiers, and Faf du Plessis. By the same token, if South Africa are to end their World Cup jinx, then it is these three same men who must shoulder the responsibility of taking the team through the draw.
South Africa are among the hot favourites for the title, and their recent record suggests that they should have little difficult in making the semi-finals, at the very least. After that, of course, it is all dependent on what happens on that particular day. I will be watching the strategies India employs against South Africa, in general, and these three batsmen in particular, with great interest.
I was particularly pleased with the manner in which Mohammed Shami bowled against Pakistan last Sunday. The bouncer he produced early in his spell to get rid of Younis Khan was a special highlight. Whether Shami thought on his feet and sent that bouncer down, or whether it was a well thought-out plan, is something I don’t know. But if it was indeed a predetermined plan, then Shami will take tremendous confidence from the manner in which he executed it. He will now be convinced, going forward, that that plan will work fine if the execution is perfect.
Not all plans, of course, work all the time, which is why it is essential to have an alternate plan. But central to every plan must be the desire to take wickets, not to contain runs. Yes, at times you can contain batsmen, build pressure and thus pick up wickets, but if the plan is only to restrict the batsmen, then you will be bereft of ideas. The pressure that you build must also include ways to use that pressure to pick up wickets.
I also expect R Ashwin to lead the way with his variations. I hope he carries on the good work of the previous game. For India to assume proportions of serious contenders for the title, this is a victory that is most imperative. And if India does run into Australia at some stage, then victory on Sunday against South Africa will make a huge psychological difference and instil in them greater self-belief.
All three of Amla, de Villiers and du Plessis are excellent finishers, so India will have to decide, should they get the option, whether it wants to bat first or chase. Having understood this particular South African batting unit, I feel it is one of the best batting groups to thrive under pressure, with de Villiers a standout option.
The general perception is that the South African bowling is heavily dependent on Dale Steyn, but I personally feel that Morne Morkel is the one who will choke you for runs. The top order will therefore have to revisit its strategy and put in enough resistance to last long enough to negate the effects of the new ball.
The MCG surface is known for its bounce and carry, and the Indian top three will have to be a little more patient. The target they set for themselves must be realistic. If you go in with a pre-set notion, then the chances of losing quick wickets and then ending up with a total that is well below a realistic level, are genuine. Wickets in hand is, thus, crucial. The good thing from India’s point of view is that the form of Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina has kept Ajinkya Rahahe and MS Dhoni still in the waiting zone. That’s nothing if not an encouraging sign for the Indian think-tank.