For perhaps the first time ever, India are touring South Africa with not just a potent frontline pace attack, but other pace options that are also strong. © Getty Images

For perhaps the first time ever, India are touring South Africa with not just a potent frontline pace attack, but other pace options that are also strong. © Getty Images

When MSK Prasad, the chairman of India’s senior selection panel, announced the team for the Test series in South Africa, he described it thus: “I personally feel that this is amongst the best balanced sides that has ever gone to South Africa.”

This is largely down to India’s bowling attack. For perhaps the first time ever, India are touring South Africa with not just a potent frontline pace attack, but other pace options that are also strong. And the tweakers, well they’re just ranked three and four in the world, and one and two if you consider only spin bowlers. As Prasad said, the team has all bases covered. And he’s right it does. And even though the South African quartet of Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander seems formidable, India will travel secure in the knowledge that they have a strong arsenal too.

What of the batting though? In the last couple of years, India have played a lot at home, with some away tours to the Caribbean and Sri Lanka, two of the weaker teams in Test cricket right now. The doubting voices gained traction with the batting’s recent travails on green-tinged pitches in a Test in Kolkata and an ODI in Dharamsala. So where exactly is India’s batting at? And most important, can it withstand the Steyn-Rabada-Morkel-Philander combo, or subsets thereof?

Without getting into crystal-ball gazing, it is naturally impossible to say. But there are pointers we can look at. For instance, India might have batted mostly at home recently, but in the two years before, it was all away from home. And tough tours away from home, beginning with South Africa in 2013-14, then New Zealand, then England and then Australia. So the four-year period from December 2013 to now gives as complete a picture as one can get of India’s overall batting health. In Test cricket, the batting line-up has stayed largely the same. In limited-overs matches, there has been greater toing and froing, but the core remains the same. And from that tour of South Africa in December 2013 to now, the Indian batting line-up has done better than any other team’s overall, across formats.

Top ten teams across formats

Team

Mts

Inns

Avg

S/R

100s

50s

Inns per 100

Inns per 50+

India

174

1718

36.66

70.55

109

259

15.76

4.67

South Africa

149

1483

34.78

69.63

89

182

16.66

5.47

Australia

152

1670

34.03

71.21

97

218

17.22

5.30

New Zealand

148

1576

33.14

72.49

75

200

21.01

5.73

England

165

1944

31.44

67.67

80

273

24.30

5.51

Pakistan

146

1601

31.43

66.34

73

202

21.93

5.82

Sri Lanka

190

2227

27.36

65.84

73

260

30.51

6.69

Bangladesh

105

1172

26.40

67.40

33

126

35.52

7.37

West Indies

128

1504

25.35

62.78

41

143

36.68

8.17

Zimbabwe

71

812

22.99

64.45

16

69

50.75

9.55

 Top teams – only Tests

Team

Mat

Inns

Avg

S/R

100

50

Inns per 100

Inns per 50+

India

44

745

36.87

53.67

60

108

12.42

4.43

Australia

44

759

36.69

56.46

63

96

12.05

4.77

New Zealand

36

633

35.16

55.16

41

82

15.44

5.15

Pakistan

35

657

34.19

50.52

47

87

13.98

4.90

South Africa

38

629

32.35

49.06

40

73

15.73

5.57

England

50

946

31.64

52.00

41

143

23.07

5.14

Sri Lanka

45

905

29.71

50.45

44

106

20.57

6.03

Bangladesh

23

451

28.18

50.87

16

58

28.19

6.09

West Indies

36

694

25.80

47.13

23

76

30.17

7.01

Zimbabwe

11

240

25.57

46.80

8

24

30.00

7.50

India’s batsmen have the highest average, the most number of centuries and the best frequency of scoring international hundreds and international fifties. Even only in Tests, India have the best average and the best rate of scoring 50s, and are only marginally behind Australia (read Steven Smith) in getting hundreds.

True, the numbers have been bolstered by India’s all-conquering home run, but even away from home, India’s indices are the best among all nations. If the argument is used about runs against easier oppositions, it can be made for every team, and given the period in question, India have batted away against pretty much every major team except Pakistan.

Only Away record – Tests

Team

Mts

Inns

Avg

S/R

100

50

Inns per 100

Inns per 50+

India

24

424

34.53

53.48

34

56

12.47

4.71

New Zealand

15

271

32.98

53.71

14

39

19.36

5.11

Australia

21

390

30.29

52.30

24

39

16.25

6.19

Pakistan

19

368

29.92

49.74

19

41

19.37

6.13

Sri Lanka

19

382

29.18

51.22

20

44

19.10

5.97

England

19

388

28.21

49.08

15

52

25.87

5.79

Zimbabwe

4

88

26.90

51.79

4

9

22.00

6.77

South Africa

19

334

25.71

44.84

10

37

33.40

7.11

Bangladesh

9

194

25.68

50.69

5

26

38.80

6.26

West Indies

16

310

23.87

48.11

10

28

31.00

8.16

The majority of this record has been achieved with a backroom set-up that has stayed largely the same. Anil Kumble was in charge for one year, and Ravi Shastri for most of the other three, from after the Test series in England. Likewise Sanjay Bangar, who as batting coach has played the major role, while you cannot discount the overall effect that the likes of R Sridhar, Shankar Basu and Patrick Farhart have had in all-round wellness and development.

If you look at the time period from only after the England Test series in 2014 – when all of these gents came together – the numbers only get better for India.

None of this guarantees any sort of success in South Africa. It does not even mean India will be favourites against South Africa, because it will take something special to beat the South Africans in their own den. But it does indicate that the Indian batting line-up has been quietly efficient across conditions, and overall, it can be reasonably expected to provide the bowling with a cushion of runs. And for those merely wanting a great contest between the top two teams in Test cricket without any partisan stake in the outcome, it gives hope of getting just that.