South Africa targets clean sweep as T20I series reaches its last stop
There is a sense of poeticism in South Africa becoming the first overseas team to play in Kolkata’s Eden Gardens after the passing away of Jagmohan Dalmiya on September 20. Hoardings paying homage to the game’s revolutionary strongman dotted the roads leading to the stadium ahead of the third and final Twenty20 International on Thursday (October 8). And the visitor would have sensed the mood better than anyone else when it entered the turf for its optional practice session on Wednesday morning.
Though AB de Villiers was missing in action, the sight of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel – both of whom joined the team for the One-Day International series – bowling at the nets revived memories of November 10, 1991 when the Eden hosted South Africa’s first international game on its return to international cricket after 21 years and eight months. Dalmiya’s role to facilitate that series is well documented, and Clive Rice, South Africa’s captain on that tour, was not exaggerating when he said, “I now know how Neil Armstrong felt when he stood on the moon.”
Since that emotional November nearly 24 years back, the two countries have been involved in some epic encounters at the hallowed turf. Sachin Tendulkar’s final over in the 1993 Hero Cup semifinal to successfully defend six runs in the first game under floodlights in India. South Africa’s maiden Test victory on Indian soil in 1996, which was front-ended by centuries from Andrew Hudson and Daryll Cullinan, twin hundreds by Gary Kirsten, and Mohammad Azharuddin’s onslaught on debutant Lance Klusener. Hashim Amla’s two defiant tons going in vain as Harbhajan Singh bowled the home team to a famous series-levelling win with just 16 minutes remaining on the final day to help India retain the No. 1 world ranking in the 2010 Test. These matches are all part of the game's folklore.
South Africa returns to the venue for the first time since that 2010 Test on a bilateral assignment in a much better space in the here and now compared to India. Having wrapped up the series in a match marred by poor crowd behaviour in Cuttack, South Africa did not stretch much in the nets. It did not complain about a 10.30 am practice slot allocated to them by the Cricket Association of Bengal for a night game, and was relaxed in its business.
Faf du Plessis is one win away from leading South Africa to its clean sweep in a three-match T20I series. But the bigger aim would be to hit the straps before the ODI series starts in Kanpur on October 11, and to experiment with the bench to increase its experience base for the 2016 World T20 in March and April scheduled across eight Indian venues.
India, on the other hand, has a different set of issues to tackle. Having been exposed in back-to-back matches, victory in a dead rubber would be a confidence booster. Ideally, India would like to achieve that its success on the back of town bench, as it would help it take another step towards finding the right composition in the game’s shortest format.
If the order in which the batsmen batted in the nets is any indication, Stuart Binny and Ajinkya Rahane, who along with Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh were among the first to bat, should get a look-in.
While Shikhar Dhawan needs runs under his belt, India could rest Rohit Sharma and open the innings with Rahane instead. Binny might replace either Ambati Rayudu or Axar Patel. And R Ashwin could be rested to give Amit Mishra a fair chance at proving himself yet again in coloured clothing after he ended among the most successful bowlers during India’s appearance in the final of the ICC World T20 2014.
In spin-friendly conditions at the Eden, where the ball is expected to keep low, Binny could be tried out at No. 6 instead of Rayudu. That would allow Mahendra Singh Dhoni to form a bowling attack consisting of three spinners, two frontline seamers, Binny and Raina.
Also, to have six regular batsmen in a 20-over game instead of one allrounder, who could be given the license to hit from the start, is a bit of a luxury. Binny has the ability to play big shots without having to get his eye in, and it is a skill that India needs desperately. Lack of consistency, however, has been Binny’s problem in the limited opportunities he has got across the three formats. He would know better than anyone else that if the chance comes on the morrow, he can ill-afford to squander it.
Binny aside, a thrilling contest would be a fitting end to the first-leg of the Mahatma Gandhi-Nelson Mandela series and an ideal way to pay respect to the man who played a big role in bringing the two countries together on the international cricket map.
India: MS Dhoni (capt, wk), Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane, Stuart Binny, R Ashwin, Axar Patel, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohit Sharma, Amit Mishra, Harbhajan Singh, Ambati Rayudu, Rohit Sharma, S Arvind.
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (capt), Hashim Amla, Farhaan Behardien, AB de Villiers (wk), JP Duminy, David Miller, Chris Morris Kagiso Rabada, Imran Tahir, Kyle Abbott, Marchant de Lange, Eddie Leie, Albie Morkel, Quinton de Kock, Khaya Zondo.