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Assault on the bastion

Winning in South Africa is tough but not impossible

George Binoy
George Binoy
by John Wright
For all teams except Australia, South Africa are like a fortress. They are one team who know how to defend their castle. The opposition don¹t seem to know how to play well there. And that extends to other sports too: even the All Blacks struggle against the Springboks at home. For India, especially, it is the toughest place to tour because of the added disadvantage of the wickets, which offer the least turn of all the Test countries.
When we last went there, in 2001-02, it was only my third overseas tour with the team. Once there, we discovered we weren¹t fit enough; we didn¹t even have a fitness trainer in those days. We needed to be fit to fight, particularly our quick bowlers. Moreover we hadn¹t won many games overseas. Our poor away record was a noose over our heads.
That was the tour that marked the start of Virender Sehwag¹s career ­ as a middle-order batsman. He got a brilliant hundred in his first Test innings, batting with Sachin Tendulkar. That was a game we lost, despite having put up 372 for 7 on the first day.
It was a raw innings. He had his share of luck, but what favoured him was that he batted with Tendulkar, something he has always enjoyed. Sehwag was there for the one-dayers and the selectors wisely picked him for the Tests. He has now become an opener. Being able to make the transition from the middle order to opening is nothing short of genius in my book. That innings was the first time I had seen the quality and the free spirit of his play. When I look back at my coaching career, that partnership stands out.
Overall, the last tour highlighted the importance of consistent opening partnerships when you are touring. In Australia last time, even though Aakash Chopra didn¹t get big runs, he was very solid, and that helped Sehwag put on big opening stands with him. That was crucial in us doing well there. We lacked that in South Africa.
Three seamers or bust
We also lacked a quality third seamer. Given the conditions, we needed at least three. It was difficult to play two spinners because the pitches hardly turned. I remember we got it all wrong at Port Elizabeth when we played two spinners and put South Africa in. They put up 362 and we were bowled out for 201.
You have to play six batters, three seamers, and two spinners, or three seamers and one spinner, if you want to play six batters and a keeper. The quandary for Sourav Ganguly and me then was that in playing three seamers and one spinner, we had to leave one of our two best bowlers out: Harbhajan Singh or Anil Kumble. You have to go with your best players.
Individually, Indian bowlers have done well in South Africa, but as a team they have failed. More than anything, particularly with a young attack, you have to bowl in partnerships. There's no point in one guy bowling well and the other going all over the place. South Africa are a good side; they will sit back when the bowling is good, and go after the bad spells. The Indian bowlers have got to make sure they find the right length early. Lots of people make the mistake of bowling too short at Johannesburg.
The importance of Viru
I understand Sehwag is going through a bit of a rough patch, but who doesn¹t? As long as he is fit ­ physically fit; that¹s always important for Sehwag ­ and as long as he remembers how he was playing when he was doing well, and what works for him, he will continue to be a special player. I hope he is not playing with any pressure on him.
Probably watching that innings from the last tour again might help him. It always pays to watch any video analysis. You can see when you were playing well ­ you feel it, you know in your mind that you were playing well that day. Then you can compare it with when you are struggling. It could be a slight movement of the head, it could be that you are not going quite forwards, and it could be a matter of three inches. But you see it quickly; you feel it.
There is talk that Sehwag might do well if he dropped down the batting order, but I think he is an opener now and he shouldn¹t be asked to change again. He has opened successfully in every other part of the world and there¹s no reason why he can¹t do that in South Africa.
It¹s an important series for Tendulkar too, as he is coming back from an injury. I saw him briefly in the Champions Trophy, and although he didn¹t get too many, he looked to be playing well. He should not be a cause for concern. I have never questioned Sachin¹s ability to perform, and that will continue as long as he keeps playing.
Five years is a long time and a lot has changed since we last toured South Africa. Those were still early days of rebuilding the team. India are a better team now, they know the South African conditions better, and are certainly better placed now than then.
John Wright spoke to Sidharth Monga. This article first appeared in the December issue of Cricinfo Magazine

George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo