The search for high-quality practice time in order to acclimatise to South African conditions was behind India’s decision to cancel their warm-up match ahead of the three-Test series. Instead of facing a South African Invitation side, which may have comprised players with scant franchise experience, as was the case against Zimbabwe 10 ten days ago on a flat, slow deck in Paarl, India have opted for two high-intensity training sessions at the Western Province Cricket Club, where they will try to replicate Test-match conditions.
“If you look at the wicket that we are playing on right now, it’s not even 15% of what we are going to get in the game,” Virat Kohli said, at the team’s first media engagement since arriving in the country two days ago. “We understand that. There’s no point wasting two days, guys going in, scoring quick fifties and coming out. We’d rather have them do two sessions like today, get into Test match zone, test ourselves, try and prepare the wickets the way we want to.
“If you’re playing a two-day game, there’s no room to change the wicket at different times of the day. Here we have the freedom to put more water on the wicket, roll it, make it harder, come tomorrow’s practice session and then we have conditions that we want. You are never sure of whether you are going to get quality practice games or not. We would rather have practice sessions that are in our control, done the way we want to run them.”
India’s reasoning only confirms what is expected: that surfaces will be sporting, with plenty of pace, bounce and seam movement, maybe even a little more than usual given that the last time South Africa were in India, at the end of 2015, they were outspun on rank turners. “We come to South Africa knowing the wickets will be different from back home. The last time that we played, there was a lot of talk about us getting bounced out and struggling against the short ball,” he said.
“The most important thing is not to get surprised by the pace and bounce. We have convinced ourselves that it’s going to be much quicker and much bouncier than back home and you are going to get balls that may surprise you every now and then. The most important thing is to put it in the past, put it behind you and focus on the next ball. That’s something that we did last time as well. You can’t afford to think there is too much pace and bounce. You rather take it on, believe in your abilities and take it head on. That’s key to playing conditions that are different from your own.”
The age-old issue of adapting to foreign conditions is an obvious starting point for the build-up to this series, but the narrative is slightly different because India believe they can do better than they have before. To date, their best result in South Africa is a drawn series in 2010-11. “This team is up for the challenge, If you asked me four years ago, I would have said no but this team has gained in experience,” Ravi Shastri, India’s head coach, said. “For us, every game is a home game. Even this is a home game at Newlands. You see the pitch and you adapt. No excuses, no complaints. Two teams have to play on that surface. If you want to be rated as a side, you adapt to those conditions. It’s as simple as that. Leave all the other crap aside. Just get out there and go and compete.”
That may seem like big talk considering India have not played outside the subcontinent or West Indies since 2015, when they toured Australia. Their home series against Sri Lanka ended on December 24, which meant they could not play a Boxing Day Test in South Africa. They only arrived in South Africa on December 28, so they were also not able to start the New Year’s Test on its usual first day, January 2.
Instead, the match begins three days later on January 5. With many still in holiday mode, and the second and third days falling on a weekend, Cricket South Africa don’t have too much reason to worry because big crowds are still expected. They can prepare for what Shastri predicts will be a “good contest” against an Indian side that want to start bossing opposition away from home, having done it so confidently in their own backyard for the last nine series.
“We are looking forward to this period of playing away from home. We feel we have the skill set to do well in any place in the world. Now is our opportunity because of the average age of the group and the amount of cricket we are going to play together,” Kohli said. “We know exactly what we need to do, if we need to bounce back, how we need to do it or if we want to create chances, how we need to create them.
“There is sense of intelligence and awareness that has crept in in the last four years and that provides the excitement we are talking about. We know exactly what we need to do come game time. It’s not like we are going to go out there and explore. We are not in that frame of mind. We know how to win Test matches now. I think that’s very good knowledge to have.”