Number one and agenda-setting
There are barely 24 hours before India kick off their Test series in South Africa. They are looking to overcome great odds to register their first-ever series victory in that country. India have won one Test out of 12 there, and also lost one rendered unofficial under controversial circumstances on their 2001 tour.
Apart from heated discussions about a fast and bouncy pitch and whether India can exorcise the demons of the past in South Africa, debate has raged over whether they will justify their number one Test ranking by upstaging the Proteas, who are ranked second. Needless to say, a lot of talk has also been about how the Indian team will respond to South Africa’s strong areas. That incidentally includes every aspect of the game.
India have already established they are much more than home tigers and a team relying a lot on turning pitches. But the body language still is one of countering the home team rather than setting the tone.
Agenda-setting is one major territory for a team ranked at the top. The top billing means you carry the mantle of champion and what champions do best — force the opposition into plan B.
The mighty West Indies, who ruled cricket through the 1980s and early 1990s shocked opposition into submission from the word go – relentless pace and aggressive batting left rivals shaking even before action began. Australia showed they were rightful heirs to the throne.
Unlike the Caribbeans, the Aussies approached the game to reflect changing times. Supremely fit to convert the fielding chores into a near art, both their batting and bowling had tremendous depth and an unmistakable aggression that conveyed to the opposition they were the team to beat. Mind games and media management were their allies as well, tripping up teams well before the first ball was bowled.
The key here is deriving confidence from being the best in the business. If there are doubts raised about the ranking, then there can’t be a better time than this to tell an opposition like South Africa who is the boss. For that to happen, that self-belief of the champion is more important than skill.
Is India the latest avatar of West Indies and Australia. That is the question. Under Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s leadership, individuals to a certain extent have stopped mattering. Players land, unpack their kit, hit their runs and take their wickets and move on. The talk of stacking up numbers in games and wickets and runs has gone down just a bit. Even youngsters realise the value of scoring runs and taking wickets when it matters.
A champion will definitely be knocked down. Ask Roger Federer, the man whose weapons include an agenda-setting single-handed backhand shot, which has required the best of counter-attacking skills to overpower in recent times.
For India, it will not be about countering the threat of the hosts in South Africa. They should go into the game looking to set the agenda. Australia had to wait for 35 years before they won a Test series in India in 2004, which they had dubbed “The Final Frontier”.
India’s South African coach Gary Kirsten has termed this series pretty much that. Indian fans would love to see the swagger of the champions from their stars as they go about their business. After all India have not won a series in Australia and failure to do that against such a strong Proteas side won’t be a calamity.
But India should get the body language right as much as they do their line and length.