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India vs South Africa 2021-22: Can India Finally Crack the Code of Winning in SA?

It is as though an India tour of South Africa is not really happening at all.

Arriving in Johannesburg, two days shy of the first Test, on festive Boxing Day, there is no indication at the OR Tambo International Airport that such a series is happening.

Typically, an Indian tour to South Africa is a celebration, a thing of hype and hoopla.

This is understandable because India touring brings several rewards.

The first, and most obvious, is the financial windfall. A cancelled India full tour can mean the difference between a decent reserve in the bank and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for a board such as Cricket South Africa.

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The second, perhaps even bigger benefit, is the attention that an India tour commands. While 99% of this attention comes from India, the biggest cricket market around, the rest of the world watches too. To be sure, authorities and players from England and Australia keep an eye on the goings on, even if their fans may not break the internet during these matches.

Thirdly, this is a major tour for India’s cricketers.

Since South Africa’s re-introduction to international cricket, India have not been able to crack the code of winning a series here. England and Australia have been breached over the years, but South Africa remains an elusive prize.

This is partly because India’s players touring South Africa already had horrors implanted in their minds, even before they had received their boarding passes. There was Bullring that was the Wanderers in Johannesburg, referring to the intimidating nature of the stadium with a full house of home supporters in. Or the Green Mamba of Kingsmead Durban, a pitch that could be so green that the ball seamed around so much, making batting impossible for those who were not used to such conditions.

Today, this intimidation factor simply does not exist.

While it is true that South Africa have bowlers who can consistently challenge the speed gun past 145 kmh, India’s fast bowling stocks have risen so much that it makes little sense for any home to prepare pitches that will help fast bowling out and out.

Also, this lot of Indian batsmen do not fear pace. They may not be playing it especially well at the moment, and this is a serious issue. India’s middle-order is struggling for runs.

While Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are batsmen of undoubted class and temperament, the fact that they are all enduring the worst runs of their respective careers simultaneously, leaves the Indian batting hanging by a thread. Or living on a prayer.

Most recently Mayank Agarwal and Shreyas Iyer came to the rescue, bailing the team out in Tests where their middle-order simply could not get its act together.

The proof of this middle-order muddle is that India is unable to put up the big scores even at home.

The days of batting once and batting long, scoring 550 or 600 seem to be a thing of the past.

Instead, 300-ish in the first innings is proving to be a good score. But this only works when one team collapses, either regularly or spectacularly. When a team is bowled out for double digits in a Test match, it becomes almost impossible to come back into the game.

All suggestions are that this South Africa-India Test series could follow a similar template.

On paper, India’s batting is superior, but form over the last two years and the absence of Rohit Sharma make it difficult to state with any certainty that this team can come good.

They have all the skills and historical performances to suggest that they can put enough runs on the board. In recent memory, India has not struggled to take 20 wickets — and playing five bowlers repeatedly contributes to this — but getting enough runs on the board has been a question mark.

South Africa’s batting can also be brittle, but they will be playing at home, in conditions that give them every chance of succeeding.

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To that end, there is every chance that this three-Test series will be decided by which team’s batting fails more or more often.

What you can be sure of, is that narratives will emerge that make this a fascinating contest.

India have a chance to make history, and when that occasion has presented itself, this team has grabbed it with both hands.

For once, India coming to South Africa could be decided not by mind games or pitches, but just by runs, and to a lesser extent, wickets.

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