South Africa v India November 23, 2006

It's a matter of the mind now

Sachin Tendulkar was one of the few Indian batsmen who wasn't completely lost at Durban against South Africa © Getty Images
The defeat at Kingsmead was so comprehensive that it¹s difficult to see where the Indian team can turn to for solace as they prepare for the three matches that are left in the one-day series. On a pitch that wasn't as venomous as it can be, most of the batsmen were ruthlessly exposed by South Africa¹s pace arsenal, with only Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid suggesting that they had the technique, the nous and the stomach for battle that might keep utter humiliation at bay.

There¹s not much that can be done between now and the next game in Cape Town on November 26. Batsmen raised on placid Indian pitches are not going to overcome their technical shortcomings in a 48-hour period, hard as they may work at nets and in front of the bowling machine. Virender Sehwag, who has struggled in recent times, showed on the tour of Australia in 2003-04 that a positive outlook and implicit faith in the methods that had taken him to the international arena were enough to overcome the technical glitches that many had predicted would be his downfall on Australian pitches.

He had done much the same thing on his Test debut in Bloemfontein, scoring a brilliant century against an attack that was every bit as lively as the one that inflicted the 157-run humiliation in Durban. Greg Chappell and many of the game¹s great thinkers have often stressed just how much success at this level is about getting your mind in order, and Sehwag in his pomp epitomised that ­ with an unfettered, uncomplicated approach that reaped spectacular rewards.

For the likes of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Suresh Raina, confronted by such conditions for the first time, that is the primary challenge. Their footwork and repertoire of strokes won¹t change drastically in the space of a tour, but they have to repose faith in the power of positive thinking if an unrelenting pace attack are not to chew them up and spit them out. Sehwag himself is said to have benefited immensely from a session with Rudi Webster during the West Indies tour, and Chappell, who has first-hand experience of the value of that from his playing days, must now focus on getting the message through to his embattled middle order.

Players with less talent than Dhoni and Raina have left South Africa with more than a few runs in the kitbag, only because they trusted the instincts that had made them successful in the first place. And while the stand-and-deliver approach that often works in India will come a cropper here, the need of the hour is a tweak here and an adjustment there, rather than a wholesale overhaul of technique.

Sehwag in his pomp epitomised an unfettered, uncomplicated approach that reaped spectacular rewards © AFP

Much has been made of the team selection for the tour, but with the exception of VVS Laxman, who should have been a shoo-in once Yuvraj Singh limped out, there¹s no one back home in India who could be expected to fly over and come to grips with these surfaces and this quality of attack. Lest we forget, this same South African side defeated Australia 3-2 in a one-day series, skittling them out for 93 in the Cape Town game.

Graeme Smith spoke after the Durban win about how much of his team¹s progress over the last couple of seasons was down to overcoming the fear of failure. The biggest challenge for the Indian team management is to try and instil a similar attitude. They may crash and burn playing what Mickey Arthur likes to call "brave cricket", but that option is any day preferable to surrendering as meekly as they did at Kingsmead. Dravid will no doubt lead from the front, but the bigger task before him is ensure that his more callow team-mates follow.

It is a challenge for Chappell too. More than anyone else he believes cricket, batting in particular, to be a game of the mind. Some Indian batsmen looked shell-shocked last night. If they begin to believe they can't, the battle would be hopelessly lost.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo