South Africa hope for lively home pitches
South African's drawn Test series against Pakistan on placid pitches in the United Arab Emirates left their bowlers craving livelier surfaces. Their cravings for responsive tracks are set to be soothed soon. The three-Test series against India gets underway in exactly three weeks time and India's batsmen should start bracing themselves for more bounce and pace than they are comfortable with.
"We've got to take our strengths into consideration, and hopefully we have wickets that will play to those strengths and help us rather than the opposition," South Africa coach Corrie van Zyl said at the team's arrival press conference in Johannesburg on Thursday. "We will hope for conditions that suit our type of players and our type of bowling should come into it."
With that reliance comes with the danger that South Africa could be lulled into complacency, safe in the knowledge that their own conditions could be their 12th man on the field, but van Zyl insisted they wouldn't be over-reliant on familiar, pace-friendly pitches. "To do that is bit of a Russian roulette approach, and I wouldn't go that far. We don't want to make it a lottery and we don't want the outcome of the series to rest on how the wickets play."
Part of the reason for South African's new sense of wariness is that in the last two years Indian batsmen have had the opportunity to play on bouncier South African tracks during tournaments such as the IPL, Champions League and Champions Trophy. "They've obviously had a lot more exposure on our wickets, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We'll have to see how well-adapted they are," van Zyl said.
Despite the practice India's batsmen have had, van Zyl still believes their biggest weakness when playing away from home may come back to haunt them. "When you've played on a certain type of wicket for a long time, and all of a sudden you come and play on a bouncy wicket it's still going to be a handful."
South Africa want to maximise their advantage on seamer-friendly pitches. They will add a pace bowler to their starting XI to work with Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis. "The fourth seamer is definitely going to play a role in SA," confirmed van Zyl. Who that extra pace man will be is a mystery. Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Wayne Parnell were both part of the touring party against Pakistan, but did not feature in either of the two Tests.
The fourth seamer means that South Africa is likely to use only one spinner against India. Johan Botha, who played as the second spinner in the Tests against Pakistan, doesn't think it will be him. "Paul [Harris] has done a good job, and he's done it for a few years now. I think he's still number one against India. I doubt we'll play two spinners, but hopefully I've done enough that if there's a gap I would take it."
South Africa's Achilles' heel has been the lack of an attacking spinner and the series against Pakistan gave the slow bowlers an opportunity to stake their claim as part of the wicket-taking clan. For the most part they failed to do so - barring a three-wicket burst from Harris and Botha after lunch on day five of the second Test. Van Zyl wasn't concerned with the lack of penetration, however. "We felt that two spinners would do the job," he said. "But the pitch turned out not to deteriorate the way we wanted."
With the Indian batsmen's level of comfort against spin, particularly of the mediocre kind, South Africa may want to cast their net out for a wicket-taking turner. They'd have to look no further than Pakistani-born Imran Tahir, who has claimed 30 wickets in four first-class games this season at an average of 22.00. Tahir was selected in January this year to play against England but was ineligible to play for South Africa because he did not have the necessary documentation. There is a strong feeling that he will be picked as soon as his papers are in order and he he becomes available.
"When?", is the question even van Zyl is asking, as no-one seems to have a date for Tahir's status as a South African citizen to be rubber stamped. "The authorities are assisting him", said South African team manager Mohammed Moosajee. "But he will have to tell us when he receives his papers". Tahir is expected to be eligible from December, but the exact day is anyone's guess.
South Africa have plenty to think about on the bowling front and almost as much on their minds about batting. Graeme Smith suffered a fractured finger during the series against Pakistan and is likely to miss at least the first Test against India. "I'm hopeful that he will be ready for the first Test. But to say I'm not nervous that he won't be wouldn't be honest," said van Zyl.
Hashim Amla also has an arm injury after being painfully hit by a Misbah-ul-Haq pull shot while fielding at short leg, which means van Zyl could be without both two of his top three. "The blow he took yesterday caused a contusion to his left forearm," Moosajee said, but added that the on-form Amla "should be fine" in time for the first Test on December 16 in Centurion.
The three Tests will be followed by a Twenty20 and five ODIs. Van Zyl said he will use the last outing before the World Cup to fine tune his combinations. "By this Indian series we want to be as close to the World Cup 15 as can be." South Africa beat Pakistan 3-2 in the ODI series in the UAE and, according to van Zyl, gained valuable experience from the close contest. "This tour has given us a lot of answers. To play in what amounted to a final and to win that has given the guys a lot of confidence."
Botha believes India will present an ideal challenge ahead of the team's quest for ICC silverware in February. "The one-day series will be good preparation for the World Cup. You want to bowl against quality players, and you know the Indian team is a world class unit. If you do well against them you are going to have a lot of confidence going into the World Cup."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent