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Sunil Gavaskar in Johannesburg 16 December 2013 - 02:18pm IST

‘Zaheer's experience crucial for India’

Gavaskar feels patience is the key to India's success in SA Tests

The Test series in South Africa will be a big challenge for Team India and MS Dhoni. They’ve had a perfect 2013 so far and it will be fantastic if they can maintain that streak. However, this will be a very different challenge for Dhoni given he has won most of his Test series in subcontinent. I truly believe this young Indian team has what it takes to give India their first Test series victory in the Rainbow Nation.

Batting

Now that all the stalwarts of Indian batting have retired, it presents a great opportunity to the next generation to take on the baton. Having said that, you cannot crucify them for not doing well straight away. We need to be patient with them and give them the time to settle down. Once you know they have the ability, you need to stand by them. We have seen that with Virat and Rohit – the team was really patient with them and look what outstanding batsmen they have turned out to be.

For me the biggest strength of this Indian batting is the fact that most of them can change gears when required. Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni are all capable of quickly shifting from being watchful to attacking.

It is not going to be an easy task for the Indian batsmen because the pitches are tough and very different to the ones in the subcontinent. Also, the red ball will move a little bit more than the white one did in the ODIs. The Indian batsmen will have to show a little patience, they will have to be ready to leave as many deliveries as they want to play. That is going to be the key for the batsmen to succeed there.

The opening pair of Dhawan and Murali Vijay will play a huge role because they will be up against the pace and swing of Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander with the new ball. It will be imperative for them to play off the first 15-20 overs for the likes of Virat, Rohits and Dhonis to come and capitalize. While Dhawan has been in good form, Vijay has been wanting for runs of late. However, I am sure he will get a kick out of donning that India jersey in such important series. That he has played a Test in South Africa before (in 2010) will also give him confidence.

Bowling

Zaheer Khan’s return is a blessing for India. More than anything else, his sheer presence in the dressing room and on the field will help the bowlers who haven’t bowled on the South African pitches. Even if he doesn’t pick too many wickets, it will be a big plus for the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Umseh Yadav and Ishant Sharma to have Zaheer around because he will be the one to give them those little tips that can be so handy. In the pressure of a Test match, sometimes all you need is a little word and not a long lecture. Zaheer is capable of doing that very well.

If Ishant Sharma bowls the same line and the length in the Tests that he bowled in the last ODI in which he took four wickets, he is going to be a handful. There has never been a doubt about his talent; the problem is that he has not always been able to put that talent to practice. The main issue has been that he often bowls 18 inches to two feet shorter than he should. That allows the batsmen that extra second to make the adjustments. If he bowls a touch fuller he’ll be able to use his height well on these surfaces and cause a few problems to the batsmen.

Secondly, I don’t think the lack of raw pace in their bowlers will bog India down because at the highest level it’s not so much the speed but the movement off the surface that matters. Steyn, for instance, does the trick more because of the movement he generates. I think the Indian bowlers are capable of doing that. You saw how Ishant bowled in the Centurion ODI, Shami was very impressive in all three one-dayers and then there’s the experience of Zaheer. The young Indian pacers need to learn about the right length and line to bowl on helpful pitches and bowling with the Kookaburra ball. That’s where Zaheer comes in. He could tell them exactly where they should pitch the ball and how to use the ball well.

This series is going to be very crucial for R Ashwin. Since he has played most of his cricket at home, he is used to getting wickets regularly in helpful conditions. Here he will have to rely on flight and variation as there won’t be much spin on offer. He will also have to be much more patient and assume the role of a stock bowler for Dhoni who could keep the pressure from one end and allow the strike bowlers to pick wickets from the other end. Also, don’t forget that he can bat too.

The combination

I think India will go with six batsmen with Dhoni at No. 7, three pacers and Ashwin. I don’t think they will play Ravindra Jadeja, at least in the first Test. Since it’s the batting that has been the cause of concern for India in the ODIs, India might go with an extra batsman – it could be Ajinkya Rahane, I’m not sure.

The opponents

Graeme Smith is going to be an important wicket and so are Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla. On the bowling front I think Philander will be a threat. He moves the ball late and both ways. When you’re facing Steyn and Philander with the new ball, the general plan is to see Steyn off because it is difficult to score off him. Philander is slower through the air and off the pitch and the batsmen tend to go after him. He capitalizes on that with the late movement of the ball. The Indian batsmen will have to watch out for him.

The one-on-one battle

Players have this confidence when they are up against certain opponents or playing at certain grounds. Zaheer has that confidence against Graeme Smith and that will give him an upper-hand. However, Smith is a world-class batsman and will be out there to prove that he is not Zaheer’s bunny. The Smith vs Zaheer is going to be a very interesting contest.

(As told to Shirin Sadikot)

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