MS Dhoni and his team arrived in Johannesburg this morning to cloudy skies and cold shoulders. But they don’t know too much about the latter. At least, not yet.
Matters seemed routine when Dhoni and his delegation got into the team bus, drove to the hotel in Sandton where they will spend most of their time on this tour, given that Durban is the only other city they will see, and the captain readied himself for his first media engagement. The number of South African reporters outnumbered their Indian counterparts and they had more than just the cricket on their minds.
The second question – the first was an almost mandatory one about how the Indian squad is coping with the absence of Sachin Tendulkar – was whether Dhoni was aware of the anger surrounding the tour. Dhoni smiled his signature smile. If people were upset with him, he seemed to be saying, he would meet that with pleasantries.
“We can arrange a match for the administrators and let them go at it,” he suggested. There was laughter all around. “The relationship between the Indian and South African teams has been good. Though we’ve seen a bit of chirping going around, it makes cricket interesting. The guys have not become too personal, which means we will have a good series.”
Although the Sreesanth-Graeme Smith incident from three years ago goes against the good-natured sportsmanship Dhoni made reference to, no-one was talking about that. Members of the teams have friendships which stretch back to their time playing together in competitions like the IPL, but that’s not what will be in the spotlight.
Instead, the public’s response to this whistle-stop tour that was supposed to headline the South African summer will be the backdrop against which this series will be played. From a bumper schedule of two T20s, seven ODIs and three Tests, the biggest series South Africa was due to host this year has been shortened to a piddly three ODIs and two Tests. For that, people are angry.
Worse for Dhoni and Co, those people have no-one to whom they can direct their anger except the Indian team. Administrators will not make appearances mere metres away from where a fan’s voice can carry. Already social media platforms have been buzzing with a few harsh words, and words are not the only thing some journalists think will be hurled at the Indian team. One asked Dhoni what he would do an object was flung at his team. “We’ll pick it up and give it back,” he said. “That’s all we can do.”
Then again, he may not have to think about any of that because there has also been suggestion that supporters would consider not going to matches at all, in a vote with your feet demonstration of their displeasure. Dhoni hopes that will not be the case either. “Whenever we have come here, we’ve got fantastic reception,” he said. “I don’t think that will really change.”
Luckily for Dhoni, his team won’t be going to Cape Town where the irritation is at its highest, so he may not see the worst of it. The New Year’s Test was cancelled because of the curtailed tour and people in the Mother City have to make do with a festival of 20-overs cricket instead. Only Johannesburg and Durban will host Test cricket for the remainder of this year, a disappointment for those in the rest of the country who long to watch their No. 1 team in action.
While Graeme Smith has made public comments calling for an end to two-Test series and asking for South Africa to play more in the longest format, Dhoni would not be drawn into doing the same. “I don’t pay that much attention to how many games we are playing,” he said. “We have a busy schedule and it’s a schedule we need to respect. What is in our hands is three ODIs and two Tests, so we will look to make the most of it and move on to the next series.”
If pure cricket is all that concerns Dhoni then he will be relishing the prospect of playing a South African ODI team that is still grappling to get its batting combinations right. India have been a force in the 50-overs version, led by explosive hitting, and Dhoni expects more of the same starting on Thursday. “If you love the ball coming on to the bat, that’s what you will see,” he said.
He admitted to not having watched much of the recently-concluded series between Pakistan and South Africa but said he would not judge it on the scorelines alone. He expects heated competition and a stern test of India’s skills, which Duncan Fletcher believes are ready for the challenge of South African surfaces.
“The way the guys have played recently, they’ve got a lot of confidence,” Fletcher said. “We were facing Australia the other day and Mitchell Johnson was getting up to 151kmph. Our top four was handling it quite well. Our batting seems technically equipped. The only thing is the experience. But this lot is confident, they’ve got no baggage and they really believe in themselves.”
Although India are touring with one of their least experienced squads, Fletcher also think they have prepared sufficiently. Six members of the current ODI squad toured South Africa in August to play first-class and List A matches. Memorably, Shikhar Dhawan scored 248 in one of the limited-overs matches. The surfaces were flat, winter pitches, though, and will likely not resemble anything India will play on in this series but Fletcher thinks the trip still had value for the players.
“To come out here and play in South Africa against this opposition, the players get a feel for the way they play cricket here,” he said. “Psychologically it’s quite an advantage.” Given that mind games are going to play a significant role in the series – be it against South African team or their public – mental strength is one thing India will need on this tour.