South Africa – Always a Daunting Challenge for Indian Batters

Until Team India won its first-ever Test series in Australia in 2019, it was rightly considered the Final Frontier. After all, no country had made India tour as many times before it could smell victory in their soil after 11 series. Compare it to England, where India registered its first-ever series win in 1971 while touring the country only for the 7th time. However, if there is one Test nation, which has remained unconquered after seven tours in the last three decades, South Africa can safely be regarded as the ultimate frontier for Team India. Only once India has managed to draw a series—1-1 in 2010 and prior to that, they squandered a historic lead of 1-0 in 2006 only to lose the series eventually.

If there is a single biggest factor in India’s underwhelming record in the Rainbow Nation, arguably it is Indian batsmen’s sustained struggle against hostile and precise fast bowling attack over the years. In 2018, India possibly had the best chance because of the versatile bowling attack they had which took 20 wickets in every match with remarkable ease and yet India lost because apart from Virat Kohli, no batter reached 120 runs in that three-match series. Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane are the only Indian batter who boast a batting average which is above 50 in South Africa even though the Mumbaikar’s sample size is very small with just three outings in red-ball cricket.

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As a batter, no one perhaps knows it better than the current Indian coach Rahul Dravid that scoring in South Africa is the toughest challenge for any batsman. For someone of his stature, who has an incredible reputation as the most reliable batsman in overseas conditions, Dravid, absurdly, mostly struggled in South Africa after his debut tour in 1996-97. He scored a superlative hundred in Johannesburg but after that trip, forget a ton, he could score only a half-century in his next 16 innings! A batting average of 29.71 in South Africa just doesn’t seem in sync with his overall average of 52.31.

However, Dravid’s case is not an exception rather a rule as far as some of the great Indian batsmen’s performances in South Africa is concerned. The performance of Sourav Ganguly (average of 36.14 in South Africa) is significantly lower than his career average (of 42.17) and VVS Laxman (who did better than Ganguly in South Africa with an average of 40.42) too met with a similar fate whose career average was 45.97. Tellingly, neither of them ever managed to score a Test hundred in South Africa. Their combined total of 34 innings in South Africa resulted in just eight half-centuries. If a glorious hundred in Cape Town in 1996 by Mohammad Azharuddin can’t mask his inability to score in South Africa (an average of 23.33 in contrast to his overall average of 45.03) then similarly Virender Sehwag’s magnificent hundred in Bloemfontein in 2001 can’t hide his poor record (average of 25.46) in South Africa. The great Sachin Tendulkar has also failed to boast a Test average of 50 plus in South Africa (his career average is 53.78) but it is not held against him since he got three tons and two of them alone in the 2010 Test series.

Historically, South Africa has always been the toughest place for any visiting batters let alone Indians or other batters from the subcontinent who find the conditions a little too tough to acclimatize. Even the greats like Brian Lara and Australia’s Ricky Ponting have failed to average 50-plus in South Africa. And, yet, it is quite frustrating to note that tour after tour the BCCI’s refusal to plan better for its team as far scheduling is concerned. In 2010, India didn’t have any first-class games before the Test series and Indian batsmen were found wanting by South African pacers in Centurion in the first Test match of the series. If the 2013 series was shortened to a two-Test series and just one practice game (and to make things worse for Team India that too was washed out!) Team India repeated the mistake of 2010 in 2018 as well by not having a single practice game before the first Test!

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Since South Africa’s readmission to international cricket in 1992, India have won only three of 20 Test matches played on their soil. They have lost ten and managed to draw seven; they are yet to win a Test series in South Africa. This is the third and possibly, the last Test tour of South Africa for the trio of Kohli, Pujara and Rahane and first for the likes of Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh Pant and if this batting line up which seemingly has got a perfect blend of experience and exuberance,  are able to pass the traditional acid test for the batters in South Africa, who knows India may just register its first-ever series win in South Africa or else, it will be the familiar failing for Indian batter in the Rainbow nation.

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