India turn focus on getting forward

Curator Evan Flint (left) inspects the pitch at Newlands ESPNcricinfo Ltd/Sidharth Monga

There are tennis balls at either edge of the pitch at the India nets. Two about four metres away from the stumps, and two about five, forming an imaginary rectangle on the pitch. And this is not a drill for the bowlers to get their length up in the seaming conditions in South Africa. The bowlers are bowling at the middle-wicket practice session at the Newlands Stadium. This is for the batsmen. Sanjay Bangar, the batting coach, and the throwdown specialist DGVI Raghavindraa, have their sidearms, the throwdown tool, ready.

Parthiv Patel and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have a go first, Ajinkya Rahane walks in next followed by openers M Vijay and KL Rahul and, finally, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli. Shikhar Dhawan, who seems to be out of contention for the first Test, beginning on Friday, and Rohit Sharma, go through the drill too. The idea seems to be to get the batsmen into the mindset and the muscle memory of moving forward at every given opportunity. They always said of Sachin Tendulkar that he batted well when his front foot moved down the track positively. It helped him cut the movement, and take toll of full deliveries.

The batsmen are asked to play forward to balls the are pitched closer than 5m. Anything closer than 4m is to be driven because it might not have enough time to deviate and take the edge. One of the biggest reasons to get driving, even if not crunching them, is the incentive for playing straight in South Africa. The outfields are not huge, they are not sluggish, and, most importantly, three slips and a gully mean not enough protection on the drive.

If you use up six fielders behind the wicket - four in the cordon and two at fine leg and third man - you are left with three fielders to patrol cover, mid-off and mid-on. It usually means mid-off goes wider to cover some ground as the cover goes squarer. With the pace in the pitch and in the outfield, there is good value to be had for straight, off and on drives. The onus seems to be on driving to the right of cover, to forget for a while the squarer cover drive, which can be played in friendlier conditions. Runs through those areas can make captains sacrifice third man, which opens up an avenue, albeit a dangerous one.

The idea here seems to be forward but watchful to balls pitched in the rectangle because that is where South Africa quicks will look to bowl most of the time. This exercise also drills in the batsmen's minds that anything shorter than five metre can be left alone because the bounce usually carries it over, which is why there are fewer lbws and bowleds in South Africa than India: 28% of pace bowlers' victims to 46.5% in India.

Pujara spoke about the importance of leaving the ball. "It's always important to leave the ball well, especially when you play overseas," Pujara said. "Once you move out of India or the Asian soil, there is enough bounce on the pitch, and that's the reason one should be able to leave the ball well."

Equally important is to score runs off loose balls, for which the forward movement is necessary because you don't want to be caught with your weight back when the ball is pitched up. You might even see Virat Kohli bat outside his crease the way he did in Australia, but probably not right away.

India do seem to have the right variety of attacking and defensive batsmen in their line-up. South Africa's coach Ottis Gibson, who was England's bowling coach when India smashed them all over Indian grounds in 2016-17, did acknowledge he didn't expect India to be pushovers. He expects them to travel better than earlier Indian teams, but did also remind them of the challenge they will face against what is "right up with the best attacks" in the world in helpful conditions.

"They played very well [in India]," Gibson said. "They were led very well by the captain who got a lot of runs. There were times in those conditions where we couldn't get him out. I think it will be different in these conditions. We will have some plans for him, as we will for every other player in the team. The Indian team is much different to teams of the past. They are a young and vibrant group. I know Ravi [Shastri, India's coach], he is an astute sort of guy when it comes to cricket and he will talk them up. But the results will take place on that green grass."

And Gibson didn't mean the outfield. The pitch doesn't look dangerously green from a distance, but at a closer look it does seem to have live grass despite the drought situation in Cape Town. "Exactly like we wanted it," Gibson said.

Pujara didn't seem perturbed by the pitch, and refused to talk about it. He said the preparation was good despite the unhappiness the team had with the time they got to acclimatise. "It has been fantastic so far," Pujara said. "Whatever net sessions we have had here, the team is very confident. We had about three net sessions so far and a couple of days, we have two net sessions in a day."

The nets are purposeful as it showed in the drills on Tuesday. The good part was it was not rigid. Batsmen were given an option to get rid of the tennis balls if they don't want them, but they batted with the markers on the pitch. By all accounts, India have made the most of whatever time they have had to prepare. There is every reason to give it their all: after their dominant home run, if they can do well this next year, they will have serious claims to being the greatest Indian team.

"Yes we have that opportunity," Pujara said. "I think if we do well here and if we do well in England and maybe Australia, once we start doing well overseas - we have already done well in India and Sri Lanka and wherever else we have played Now is the right time. There is no excuse. We have that experience, we have that team that can dominate overseas. So if we do well, this will be one of the best teams India has ever had."