To play or to leave, that was India’s dilemma in their first net session at Newlands on Tuesday. For the decision-makers, the extended training session was about weighing the options of playing the in-form KL Rahul as Murali Vijay’s opening partner and leaving out the injured Shikhar Dhawan. For the batsmen, their long stint under the sun was about judging which ball to strike and when to shoulder arms. And collectively for the restless-looking visitors, who of late have often complained about not getting enough time to prepare for an important away tour, the biggest quandary was about when to call it a day.
First the openers, and why it was easy to guess why Rahul looks odds-on favourite to face the South African pacers. There’s this tale about sporting anxiety, narrated by a foreign coach, that’s very popular in India’s hockey circles. It tells you how it’s very easy to guess who in the crowded Indian huddle, at the top of D, will take the penalty corner when the ball rushes towards them. Coaches would want to keep the opponents guessing about the identity of the penalty-corner flicker, but that seldom happens. Most times, to the exasperation of the coach, the designated hitter would be wriggling his palm, looking extremely edgy. The ones told to sell a dummy would look extremely relaxed, almost non-involved, doing precious little to confuse rivals.
Today at Newlands, forget the South African think tank, even the small number of NRI families who turned up to watch the nets would go home with the knowledge that it would be Rahul in the playing XI. Dhawan wasn’t even trying to sell a dummy.
It was Rahul who took guard first on the central square, with Vijay at the other end. He looked edgy asking questions to those around him, both coaches and colleagues. He looked like an opener who in a few days’ time would be facing a bowling attack likely to include Steyn, Morkel, Philander and Rabada.
Dhawan also did bat, both on the square inside the stadium and the nets outside, but there wasn’t any nervousness in his walk. It didn’t seem like butterflies were charging in his stomach like a herd of wildebeest mid-migration. At the start of the session he was off the square, practising catches, that too off spinners. Later, he gingerly walked to the nets and faced throw-downs from batting coach Sanjay Bangar.
Rahul spent the day mostly in the company of Vijay. After the nets on the central square, the two openers walked together to the nets next to the Cape Cobra administrative office.
Here Rahul would face a bunch of excited net bowlers, all keen to impress the international cricketers with their express pace. One lively young bowler, Jason Alexander, a 17-year-old who plays for his provincial team, was drifting on Rahul’s legs. The opener had a word with the left-arm pacer. “He asked me to go round the wicket,” Jason would say later. The change of angle meant, the balls were now pitched on and around the off-stump. That’s the line Rahul expected to face in the Test, that’s the line he wanted to master. It wasn’t just Rahul, most Indian batsmen, were keen to bat with the ball pitched in the ‘corridor of uncertainty’.
The biggest challenge
They wanted to be ready for the biggest challenge South Africa throws at visiting batsmen. While it is the ‘bounce’ that mostly rattles batsmen, it is the ‘movement off the pitch’ that sends them back to the pavilion.
To play or to leave, India didn’t want to leave it too late. They didn’t want to sleep over the dilemma either. They wanted to make that decision their second nature.
Listening to Newlands’ old curator Evan Flint, one understands India’s fears, its caution and training methods. He stands not far from the section of the stadium that’s wisely left un-constructed so that cricket gets the stunning backdrop of the Table mountain. Flint isn’t just aware of the soil beneath but even the winds around Newlands.
“The first day there will be pretty good south-easterly winds which means it will be hot. But the north-westerly blows on Day 2 and 3, so it can rain,” he says.
Flint says that because Cape Town is mostly windy, there is little chance of getting swing. With not much movement in the air, the only way to take wickets is by getting the ball to move off the pitch. And this brings into the discussion Vernon Philander, the local boy who is back after injury and expected to have a big impact on the series.
The curator has seen Philander from his early days. He was around when he took 35 wickets at 16.11 while playing for Cape Cobras, a performance that got him a South Africa call-up. Flint has an interesting way of describing Philander: “The ball, it seems it is on a piece of string.” It’s a poetic interpretation of moving the ball just that little bit so that it takes the edge of the bat and lands in the hands of the wicketkeeper or sneaks in between bat and pad.
Philander’s art is nuanced, he is a connoisseur’s delight.
“Philander is best suited for the pitch. This is his home ground, so his record speaks for itself, even his domestic record before he played for South Africa. If you put the ball in the right area and hit the seam, it will go,” Flint says.
He goes on to add that Newlands isn’t a Rabada-kind of pitch. “He hasn’t played too much here. It doesn’t suit him since he hits the pitch a little harder. Wanderers and Centurion will suit him better.”
Philander might not be the poster boy of South African pace bowling — first it was Steyn, now it’s Rabada — but he is someone who is hugely feared by rivals. Australia great Ricky Ponting rated him the best he had ever faced.
“He is probably the hardest I faced in world cricket because you don’t get any visual clues with the swinging ball. Most other guys, when there’s movement, the ball actually swings in the air first and you have some sort of idea of which way the ball is going to go. He doesn’t swing the ball at all. It comes out of his hand dead straight and he doesn’t know which way it’s going to go off the pitch either,” Ponting had said once.
Ponting’s helplessness explains Philander’s class and long net sessions that the Indians had. They seemed to have in mind the nightmarish scenario of batting first on Day 1 of the Test and the shining new ball in Philander’s hand. To play or to leave, is expected to be the important question during the Tests and Indians were busy doing some last- minute revisions.
Like studious students they kept going back to the book, skipping from one net to another, before finally taking the bus to the hotel. To play or leave, remained the theme of the day.