India must show they can compete
SuperSport Park is an incredibly spectator-friendly venue. It has only one stand, the rest of the seating is made up of grass embankments. Behind the grass banks there are a few house-like structures that are used as hospitality suites. There is a bar called the Captain's Deck for those who can't get into the suites. There are stumps around the ground for braais. There is not a single pillar to obstruct your view, nor chairs next to each other where you have to brush elbows with people. Except that it becomes a little difficult for people when it rains and the grass gets wet. It has been raining here. Not apocalyptically, but persistently and steadily.
It rained heavily just before India last came here for a Test. After a little over two days of cricket back then, India had been mauled so badly you wondered if they would ever be able to make a comeback on the tour. After two days of cricket this time around, it is not too different. The bowlers have looked innocuous, under the pressure of big chases the equally inexperienced batsmen haven't been able to bail them out. The main batsmen haven't even spent long enough on the pitch to offer an indication as to whether they will be able to cope.
The previous time, though, on the third proper day of international cricket, Sachin Tendulkar scored his 50th Test hundred, MS Dhoni counterattacked with 90, and Gautam Gambhir fought it out for 80. That team had a lot of steel compared to other Indian teams: that second innings in Centurion was their second 450-plus score in the second innings of a match in two years, as against four overall before then.
Eventually it served to only delay the inevitable defeat in that Test, but Tendulkar came out and said it was important that a message be sent that India were good enough to compete, and they wouldn't roll over and die. India went on to convert that same-old-same-old feel into their best bilateral tour of South Africa: a drawn Test series, and an ODI series that was alive until the final half hour. It was a little similar to Alastair Cook's second-innings century in the Ahmedabad defeat last year, after which England came back to win the series.
More than sending a message to the opposition, it is about sending a message to your team-mates who might already be low on confidence and thinking of past disasters. "Look fellas, this can be done, I am doing it, we can all do it." India have come to Centurion needing something of that proportion. It is all right even if they lose the match - if it is played, that is. They just need somebody to convey to them that Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel can be faced on these bouncy pitches in seaming conditions. They need a bowler to tell them Hashim Amla can beaten and troubled. Otherwise this short tour is going to feel like an excruciatingly long one.
The batsmen have already drawn all the flak and the pressure. It has come to a stage where it is considered to be an excellent effort to concede 280 on a pitch and heavy outfield on which 230 was par. At least they didn't go for 358. That's a bonus in Indian cricket. Not that the batsmen have painted themselves in glory, but they need some time in the middle without the pressure of chasing an over-par score before they can be judged. It could mean taking the brave call of batting first on a pitch that has taken a lot of moisture from non-stop rain. If ever there was a time to make a brave call, this might be it.
A day before this ODI, Rohit Sharma spoke of the need to show a fight. "Of course we are here to compete, and not have fun and just look around in South Africa," Rohit said. "From the day since we arrived here, we wanted to provide a point. We tried our best, but unfortunately it didn't work out. There is one more game and a couple of Test matches after this. I am sure things will turn around.
"Tomorrow's game will give us an ideal opportunity to come out and perform and show them, 'Yes we are here to perform and do well.' The Test series will be a different ball game."
Rohit spoke of the need for partnerships, said the conditions are not as difficult as the results suggest, and that he knew that once you can get in South Africa can be one of the best places to bat, with its true bounce and small outfields. All the talk has been talked. Now India need somebody to go out there and actually put up a spell of competition just so that the others know it can be done.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo