Smith and batting key for South Africa - Wessels
Kepler Wessels is convinced a strong batting line-up and Graeme Smith's "strong personality" will hold South Africa together and help them tide over the coaching crisis on their tour to India. Only four points separate the top two Test teams - if South Africa manage to win the two-match series they will displace India to go No. 1 - and Wessels believes they will pose a stiff challenge for the host in what has been billed as a world championship bout.
"Graeme Smith is a very strong personality so he is not going to have too many problems in dealing with the situation," Wessels told Cricinfo on the eve of South Africa's departure to India. "I've been through these things before. In a place like India cricket is so important, so that is what everybody in the group should be focusing on."
Wessels, South Africa's first Test captain after their readmission into international cricket, was appointed to the twin positions of interim selector and as batting consultant to Corrie van Zyl, the interim coach in the wake of Mickey Arthur's sudden resignation earlier this week. A resolute mind with an unflinching personality, Wessels was known for his ruthlessness as a leader who put his players through the tough grind and would not accept defeat at any cost. Players like Allan Donald might not have liked the rigid approach at times, but acknowledged it was necessary to ingrain such a discipline for South Africa to become a feared opponent.
Many in South Africa now believe Wessels is in the right position once again to help South Africa become the best in all forms of the game. For the moment, Wessels feels his role is a very simple one. "I'm there to assist Corrie van Zyl in the best possible way that I can. One of the specialties that I have is as batting coach and I have worked with a number of players before, so it would be a natural progression of some of the work that we have done," he said.
Considering that most of the South African batsmen have toured India previously - the last time in 2008 - Wessels was confident they could adapt to the challenge more quickly. "The South African line-up is very strong and has performed very well over the last couple of years under all conditions," he said. "So they have got an established and very experienced batting line-up. Playing in India is always challenging but they did well about a year ago so it should be quite exciting."
None of his 40 Tests was on the subcontinent but Wessels felt the secret to succeed as a batsman in India was simple. "If you get a start you have got to try and convert that into a big score because when you do that you forge partnerships and pitch your team into a good position. So there is nothing new as far as that is concerned but that is clearly what we need to do."
According to him an important advantage that South Africa have were heavy scorers like Smith, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, all of whom have hit big centuries across the world. And that assessment is accurate; even if Kallis had a lean run by his standards on the 2008 tour, four of the top five run makers in that three-Test series, which was shared 1-1, were South Africans. Neil McKenzie, their top scorer on that tour, is not part of the squad this time.
This time around one of the openers, Ashwell Prince, has proved to be a reason for worry. van Zyl has already admitted he will work closely with Prince to help him settle down in his new position as an opener, especially after a weak series against England. Another batsman in shaky form is JP Duminy, who after a spectacular debut series in Australia has scores of 20 or less in ten of his last 14 innings, including two ducks in a row against England. Still, Wessels was not too fazed by Duminy's form. "JP is exactly the same guy and it is just a matter of time before he gets back into top form, so I'm not concerned," he said.
Asked if the absence of Rahul Dravid could hurt India's chances, Wessels agreed partially but pointed that the hosts had able replacements to breach the vacancy. "It is unfortunate that Rahul won't be there so I suppose that will be a disadvantage," he said, "But India have a lot of depth in their squad on home soil so there would be some good player coming in clearly."
Wessels refused to predict a series victor considering India were walking into the contest with handsome series victories over Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as opposed to South Africa, who struggled to level the series against England at home. "Every series is a new event, what happened before doesn't really matter," he said. "Both teams are very strong and probably are the two top teams in the world at the moment. So we should in for a real mouth-watering contest."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo