The ‘Freedom Series’ between India and South Africa begins against the beautiful backdrop of Dharamsala as two evenly-matched sides take on each other in the first of the three-match series. India is back under the leadership of MS Dhoni while Faf du Plessis leads the Proteas, who are not short on experience of playing in India.
The beauty of India’s most scenic cricket stadium, the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium at Dharamsala, situated at an altitude over 1400m, has been talked about by players from both teams.
What is interesting, however, is that South African captain Faf du Plessis was taken aback that BCCI chose this venue for the first match of the tour.
du Plessis said that,“I will be honest that I was quite surprised when I heard that we will be playing in Dharamsala first”.“Dharamsala has a nice wicket with good pace and bounce. We would be looking to use those conditions with our quick bowlers.”
The curator has also promised a fast wicket with bounce and carry but added it should be a sporting wicket for 40 overs. Dew could be a factor for the team bowling second, despite reassurances from the ground staff that they are prepared to handle it. Given most of the batsmen in either side enjoy the ball coming on to the bat, it should be a high-scoring affair aided by the lush green outfield at HPCA.
Dharamsala has hosted just two ODIs so far, with India winning one (in 2014, versus a West Indies side that was in protest with its own board) and losing a dead-rubber against England in 2013. Suresh Raina made half-centuries on both occasions while Kohli struck a masterful century against West Indies. There have been eight IPL matches at this venue, with the team batting first winning on four occasions – perhaps indicating the toss is not as crucial as Suresh Raina made it out to be in the press conference leading up to the match.
The not-so-Indian conditions of Dharamsala mean, India’s playing XI on the night won’t be so straight-forward. Never one to give away too much in a press conference, Dhoni assuredly side-stepped questions about the team composition, indicating that the lack of a good seaming all-rounder (poor Stuart Binny) means he has plenty of possible combinations to choose from, for his bowling attack.
Dhoni said that,“Like if we go with two spinners, one of them has to be a better batsman”,“We don’t have a seamer all-rounder, who can give us 4 overs in a T20 game or for that matter 10 overs in a 50-over game and also bat as well. So we have to keep all these factors (in mind).”
While the batting line-up picks itself for the most part, the order is still flexible and Dhoni intends to keep it that way. An interesting conundrum facing the skipper is that Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina all are regulars at the top-order for their respective IPL teams. But like Dhoni said, somebody has to bat in the middle.
Dhoni said that,“Raina is not a finisher. We play more T20s and have more statistics from IPL than T20 Internationals. He is somebody who has batted at No 3 in most of the matches”.
South Africa, who come in to this series on the back of a low-profile bilateral affair against New Zealand where they drew the two-match T20I series, will be fielding players with plenty of IPL experience. The likes of AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, David Miller, David Wiese and Imran Tahir are all household names in India.
Faf du Plessis spoke highly of Tahir, who was Delhi Daredevils’ leading wicket-taker in the 2015 IPL. In the absence of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, Tahir will be the leader of the attack.
du Plessis said that,“[Imran] has changed the way we have played in white ball format. We have always relied on pace to strike first and now our success in One day team or T20 team is heavily on his (Tahir) shoulders”.
That said, the batting talent on either side outweighs the bowling. The stroke-makers in the Indian side would relish the ball coming on to the bat too. Unless the fast bowlers on are able to generate seam movement or swing, this series opener should see the team with the better batting might on the night get a head start. It is fair to say that South Africa perhaps have been given the best possible venue to start their long tour of India.