Eat. Play. Love – SA’s mantra in India

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

EAT. Play. Love. That’s what SA are going to have to do better than ever if they are to make a success of their most ambitious tour to India.

The secret to winning in India is immersion in every sense. So, eat the food and love the place to give yourself a chance to play like champions. The opposite – to seek out restaurants that have reassuringly recognisable menus, to gawk at the traffic and the smog and the heaving crowds in the streets at all hours – is to cocoon yourself in denial and, as sure as dammit, defeat will follow.

The Twenty20 facet of SA’s challenge started on Saturday when Faf du Plessis’ squad jetted out of Johannesburg. Their series of three matches starts in Dharamsala on Friday. That will be followed by five one-day internationals and four tests.

And already SA are being tested. Allrounder David Wiese, who was in the T20 squad, has been ruled out with a fractured hand. He will be replaced by Albie Morkel, the 34-year-old owner of 273 caps in the format who last played for SA against India in Dhaka in April last year.

“Albie has a lot of experience,” Du Plessis said. “I suppose he thought that his time was up but he’s getting another opportunity.”

Rilee Rossouw’s stress fractured foot has not healed well enough for him to take his place in the ODI squad. The uncapped Khaya Zondo, who was selected for the T20s, will fill the gap.

Seventy-two days, the duration of the tour, is a long time to be on the road anywhere. So it is indeed a blessing that modern India is a significantly less foreign place than it was even a few years ago.

“It’s a massive tour,” SA team manager Mohammed Moosajee said. “Our perspective is to keep things as fresh as possible. We’re preparing a two or three-day trip to Goa, which we’ll try to keep quite lighthearted rather than cricket-related.”

Even so, spending that long in a country as consumed and consummable by cricket as India is only adds to the weight SA’s players will feel mounting on their shoulders as the days add up. But, if they win more matches than they lose, they will welcome that weight.

Both edges of that sword will be especially sharp for the six players who have been named in all three squads: Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir.

The first four are old hands who have 938 caps for SA between them in all formats. If anyone is mentally, physically and emotionally equipped for this marathon they are, although De Villiers’ and Duminy’s changed status as young fathers will complicate their feelings.

But Rabada, just 20, has played only 11 first-class matches and has turned out for SA in five ODIs and six T20s. Yes, he has already won an under-19 World Cup, but by the end of this tour – whatever happens – that will be a distant memory for him.

Tahir, meanwhile, will try to maintain his mastery in the shorter formats – he is ranked second among ODI bowlers and his 14th rung on the T20 ladder is the current highest by a SA player – and then resurrect a test career that stalled in December.

Rabada is a young man making his way and Tahir is skittish and impatient. They may need more of the SA team management’s attention than most of the other players.

The extreme length of the tour will also mean SA will depend on their star players even more than usual, and rebel-era SA player Ray Jennings offered what will in certain quarters be a controversial opinion on that score.

“Facing the new ball is easy in India but when the ball gets older some guys struggle to handle it; AB can handle it.”

Where De Villiers bats in the order in ODIs and T20s has become the hottest debate in SA cricket. Conventional thinking is that the more balls he faces, the better. But coach Russell Domingo has preferred to deploy him after a platform of runs has been established.

The stats say De Villiers is most successful – in T20s, anyway – when he takes guard at No. 3, where he has scored three half-centuries and has a strike rate of 126.40.

Another question SA will have to answer concerns the state of Du Plessis’ left knee. Cortisone injections and a softly-softly return to full training has been the approach so far.

“It has settled well over the past two weeks, but he will require careful management,” Moosajee said.

Even if Du Plessis can’t play much, at least he can eat the food and love the place.

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