In the all-time classic action movie, Die Hard, Hans Gruber, the character portrayed brilliantly by Alan Rickman, says “when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.” While India’s cricketing conquests are far from complete, their display over the last two years has been close to perfect in home conditions. However, the bigger battles come up in the next 12-15 months when they journey to South Africa, England and Australia.

South Africa, in particular, has presented India with an almighty challenge for over 25 years now. Ever since their first tour of South Africa in 1992, India have always struggled with the bounce, pace and movement on offer. In their last three tours, however, India have won two Tests and came extremely close to winning another on their most recent visit. With an extraordinarily successful home season behind them, India must believe that this is their finest chance to upstage an opponent going through a transition phase.

The History

The 1990s were a tough decade for India when it came to away tours. However, at the turn of the millennium, their fortunes swung. Under Sourav Ganguly, the team went on to challenge all top teams and drew a series in England (2002) and in Australia (2003-04). South Africa, though, proved a bridge too far.

In the 2006 series, India started brilliantly in Johannesburg, bowling the hosts out for just 84 and taking a 1-0 lead. Defensive batting and an inability to seize the initiative led to defeats in the next two Tests. When they returned in 2010-11, they faced up to a South African team that had drawn two Test series in India in 2008 and 2010. India were crushed on a difficult track in the first Test in Centurion but bounced back superbly in Durban, winning by 87 runs. They had their moments in the third Test but had to settle for a draw.

On their previous tour (2013-14), India came ever so close to a win at the Wanderers but a magnificent partnership between Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers turned the contest with South Africa ending just short of a record chase of 458. Dale Steyn blew India away in the next Test in Durban and set up a ten-wicket win, leaving India without a single series win in South Africa.

A contest never short on drama, controversy, and high-quality performances, the India-South Africa Test series does promise to be a massive test for both teams.

Testing conditions

India’s top-order batsmen (1-3) had no clue on their first three tours of South Africa, averaging 17.52, 24.6 and 26 respectively. The struggle continued in the 2006 series too (average 23.4) but the average went up to 29.6 in 2010-11 and 42 in the previous tour.

The middle-order (4-7) batsmen averaged just over 30 in the first two series in South Africa before a much better display in the controversial series in 2001-02 when they averaged over 46. In the next two series, the average fell to the mid 30s before rising again to go past the 40 mark on the most recent tour.

When we compare the Indian batting performance (1-7) in four countries, it becomes fairly apparent that the toughest conditions have been in South Africa. In the 1990s, they averaged just over 26 in South Africa with only Australia proving to be a bigger challenge (average 25.3). Between 2000 and 2009, they did much better; In England and Australia, the batting average was well into the 40s but continued to hover in the early 30s in South Africa. Between 2010 and now, the numbers in South Africa are much better (36.2) with the poorest performance coming in England, where they average 27.

How do you win in South Africa?

With precious little to show in terms of a winning record, India will have to look back at their inspiring performances in Johannesburg (2006 and 2013) and Durban (2010). In the first Test in 2006, top-class seam bowling flattened the hosts for a sub-100 score from which they never recovered. Great bowling, coupled with some brilliant batting by VVS Laxman, led to a surprise win in Durban (2010), a venue where they have had the most difficulty.

Across the three venues in South Africa where they have played at least 3 Tests, India have the lowest batting average in Durban (20.57). Although they did win a Test in Durban earlier, they will perhaps be pleased that there is no Test match to be played at the venue this time around where they have had some unpleasant memories.

Australia has been the team to emulate when it comes to performances in South Africa. They are yet to lose a single series in South Africa since the latter’s readmission. A blueprint for a successful run in South Africa is to bat big the first time and target the hosts with some high-quality pace bowling. Spinners, with the exception of Shane Warne, have had little success. Perhaps, the outcome of the series will rest on the mini contest between India’s powerful batting line-up and the hosts’ pace attack.

The Steyn Factor

Ever since he made his debut in 2004, Dale Steyn seemed like he would be someone special. With South Africa boasting a strong tradition of top fast bowlers, Steyn had big boots to fill. He went about breaking and creating records for more than a decade and is poised just short of becoming the highest wicket taker for South Africa, five short of Shaun Pollock.

The most outstanding aspect of Steyn’s record has been his strike rate. Among fast bowlers with 300+ wickets, his strike rate of 41 is by far the finest, with Waqar Younis and Malcolm Marshall in second and third spot. In terms of the bowling quality factor (combining the average and strike rate), Steyn is on top, followed by Marshall and Waqar. He also has 26 five wicket hauls in 156 innings (ratio of innings per five-for - RPF - of 6). Only Richard Hadlee and Dennis Lillee are ahead on this front (4.16 and 5.73 respectively).

The last two years, however, have been extremely tough for Steyn, who has been plagued with injuries. His bowling quality (moving average multiplied by moving strike rate) considered across a group of 10 consecutive innings was consistently high between 2007 and 2008, reaching the top mark (100) in January 2008.

Another great run in late 2012 and early 2013 saw the figure reach the mid 90s. Since February 2013, however, the corresponding figure has gone past the 60 mark only twice and is mostly in the 40s and early 50s. This does indicate that Steyn has had his struggles and that he might be past his prime. Even so, in combination with the young Kagiso Rabada, and the experienced Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, Steyn is likely to provide a serious challenge to India’s batsmen who are coming off more than a year of batting on home tracks.

Inspiration from the past

India-South Africa contests have had a mix of everything – exceptional batting, high-quality fast bowling, match fixing allegations, and a much-debated decision by the match referee, Mike Denness, which led to a Test match being deemed unofficial.

India may have never quite managed to succeed as a team but their batsmen have produced some stellar performances. One of the finest counter-attacking partnerships came when Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin went on the rampage against a marauding South African pace attack in 1997, after India were reduced to 58/5 in Cape Town. When Azharuddin was finally run out for a brilliant 116, the pair had added a priceless 222.

In the 2001-02 series, Virender Sehwag made a memorable debut in Bloemfontein, scoring 105 against a powerful pace attack, with Tendulkar for company. In the 2010-11 series, Tendulkar stood tall in the first and third Tests, countering Steyn’s outstanding swing bowling with a batting masterclass that came ever so close to perfection.

The innings of that series, however, came from Laxman, who made a majestic 96 on a fiendishly difficult track in Durban to set up a vital win.

With a balanced line-up and a top-class record in the last year, India would do well to look back at some of these inspiring displays as they embark on what is surely their acid test on the path to being regarded as an all-time great team.