Ed Hawkins previews a potentially thrilling clash over four Tests and expects Dale Steyn and Co to take the spoils...
"Can South Africa, a team schooled on wickets which offer true bounce for the batsmen and seam and swing for the bowlers, cope with surfaces altogether alien?"
Lay India at [2.6]
India and South Africa begin a four-Test series in Mohali on Thursday. It is a contest which is rich with promise of competitiveness and the allure of how the teams will fare against the most destructive arts - fast bowling and spin.
Above all the clash challenges the recent surge of home advantage. This era of Test cricket will be remembered as one-sided with the touring teams largely hopeless - from the last 50 series only 15 have been won by the away team.
With South Africa as the No 1 side in the world and buoyant following victories in the T20 and ODI series that have preceded the serious stuff, this could the be a rare occasion when a punter can bet on a visitor with confidence.
India are [2.0] to win the series. South Africa are [2.6] and the draw is [3.6]. As ever the debate should focus on whether South Africa, led by Hashim Amla, are the value.
After all, religiously backing the home side over the study period would, naturally, have paid off. At a prohibitive average price of [1.7] on the home side, a gambler would be in profit to level stakes and would care little for the nuances of which team is best equipped to thrive in unfamiliar conditions.
For that is the heart of the issue. Can South Africa, a team schooled on wickets which offer true bounce for the batsmen and seam and swing for the bowlers, cope with surfaces altogether alien?
There will be low, slow bounce while patience, not to mention malleable wrists, will be key with the willow. The threat of spin - biting, spitting turn - is their greatest fear. While the bowlers will have to bend their backs and come to terms with the fact that sometimes, maybe for whole sessions, they will feel utterly bereft at the prospect of a wicket.
Of course such worries are why touring teams struggle so. Wherever you are in the world conditions differ. India, for example, are awful on the road and cannot begin to cope unless there is a semblance of 'home' in the wickets.
South Africa, however, are the exception to the rule that home teams dominate. Since 2007 they haven't lost an away series. They have a win-loss record of 18-5 in that time which is extraordinary given the weight of stats against visitors. The next best is Australia who are in a deficit - 18 wins and 22 defeats.
The even better news for South Africa supporters is that, statistically, if there is any side which can cope in India it is South Africa. Well, let's quantify that statement. Any side which does not hail from the Asian sub-continent.
In the last 20 years their win-loss ratio of 1.0 in Tests in India is matched only by Pakistan. To put that into context, England, who won on their last visit, have a ratio of 0.75.
The not-so-good news for South Africa supporters is that despite impressive numbers, the team has managed to win one of their five series. Two of the last three series have been draws - both 1-1 from two Tests in 2010 and three in 2008 - while India won 1-0 in 2004.
Still, South Africa's record in Asia has to be respected. They have a 7-3 win-loss record in 17 Tests and, overall, three wins in eight series. As Cricinfo's Stasguru tool reveals, they have a win-loss ratio of 2.33 in Asia which is significantly better than other non-Asian teams: England are at 5-8, New Zealand 3-7 and Australia 1-10.
Collectively they are force. Individually they pass muster, too. Dale Steyn, the leader of their pace attack, is ten wickets from a century in Asia which will put him in a small and unique group of fast bowlers to have achieved the feat.
Steyn averages 24.65 in Tests in the continent - not including Bangladesh - and in India alone that figure dips to 20.23. His strike rate is a phenomenal 34.5. So much for wondering when the next wicket will come.
The strike rates in India of the pacemen the home team hope to unsettle South Africa with are as follows: 69.3 Bhuv Kumar, 66.4 Ishant Sharma, 64 Varun Aaron, 43.1 Umesh Yadav. There are some big gaps between them and Steyn.
Spin, of course, will be more potent for India but South Africa are unlikely to be that concerned by Ravi Ashwin, who has admitted he is not yet at full fitness, Ravi Jadeja, who would have been more useful in the one-day series, and Amit Mishra, whose recent arrest for assault might mean he is not wholly concentrating on the job at hand.
It is true that doctored wickets could redress the balance. In Mohali there is talk that it could spin on day one and Faf du Plessis, the South Africa batsman, has broken rank somewhat and criticised the dry nature of the track.
That is the right of the home side and another reason why touring teams have struggled so. India are sore after failing to produce spinning wickets in the one-day series and they are unlikely to make the same mistake. The craft of Imran Tahir, the South Africa spinner, should perhaps concern them a little more than it does.
A close series is expected. A 2-1 win for India or South Africa is [5.4] and [6.0] respectively. Another 1-1 draw is [6.8]. Keeping the stalemate on side, the shrewdest bet looks to be a lay of India at [2.6].
Ed Hawkins P/L
To £10 level stakes (unless otherwise stated), based only on available prices. Does not include back-to-lay in-running match advice or commission rate.
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