Dale Steyn's struggles in Sri Lanka defeat indicate the end is near for all-time great

Ashish Peter 23/07/2018
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Steyn went wicketless in the second Test against Sri Lanka.

When the South Africa squad departed for their tour of Sri Lanka earlier this month, all eyes were on pacer Dale Steyn.

The Proteas fast-bowling great was just three wickets shy of overhauling Shaun Pollock to become South Africa’s leading wicket-taker in Test cricket.  It was also a chance for cricket fans to see the smiling assassin in action once again after his injury troubles over the past year or so.

It all seemed to be going according to plan for the 35-year-old after he picked up a wicket in each innings in the first Test at Galle to draw level with Pollock’s tally of 421 wickets.

The Colombo Test was meant to be the crowning moment for Steyn, toppling the record he has been eyeing since South Africa visited Australia towards the end of 2016. At the time, Steyn was sitting on 416 wickets and a three-Test series against the Aussies represented the perfect chance for him to take over the mantle from Pollock.

Unfortunately, he fractured his shoulder in the first innings of the first Test at Perth, resulting in almost a year-long injury layoff. When he finally did make his long-awaited return in the first Test against India at the start of the year, it lasted just 17.3 overs before Steyn suffered a freak toe injury in the first innings.

Steyn has been struggling with injuries since the end of 2016.

Steyn has been struggling with injuries since the end of 2016.

Another lengthy spell on the sidelines beckoned, leaving everyone to wonder if Steyn would ever play Test cricket for South Africa again. But the fast-bowler’s grit and tenacity has not been in question ever since he made his debut as a 21-year-old in 2004 against England at Port Elizabeth. There was no doubt he would return, if only to break the record which had been eluding him.

Yet for the first time in his 88-match career, Steyn went wicketless during the Colombo Test as Sri Lanka completed a 199-run win to capture the series 2-0.

While overseas pacers struggling to replicate their form in subcontinent conditions is not a new trend, it was still an anomaly for Steyn. The South Africa man had picked up 92 wickets in 21 matches in the subcontinent at an outstanding average of 24.11 and a strike-rate of less than 43. His ability to generate lethal reverse swing has seen Steyn demolish batting line-ups on many occasions on his previous tours to South Asia.

Breaking Pollock’s record will now have to wait till December when Pakistan come touring to South Africa for a three-Test series.  At 35 years of age, there is no telling how much gas the Proteas pacer still has left in his tank. No longer is he the South African pace spearhead for that mantle has long been passed down to Kagiso Rabada who continues to lead the ICC Test rankings for bowlers. That Steyn was only able to pick up two wickets in the first Test when Rabada caused all sorts of mayhem with his seven-wicket haul was telling.

Rabada has taken over the mantle of the pace spearhead from Steyn.

Rabada has taken over the mantle of the pace spearhead from Steyn.

The end seems nigh for Steyn in the five-day format. The sting and venom that have long been associated with his bowling were no longer visible in the two Tests against the Lankans. The manner in which tail-ender Rangana Herath effortlessly swatted the pacer for boundaries in the first innings at Colombo was a painful sight for fans who gave grown accustomed to Steyn ripping apart the very best. Even Steyn could only afford to let out a rueful smile as Herath dished out some punishment.

The South Africa stalwart probably knows all too well that his swansong cannot be far off. It is unfortunate that injuries have robbed a vital chunk of the latter half of what has been a simply sublime career.

To maintain an average of less than 23 and a strike-rate of 42 in after 88 Tests as a pacer is ridiculous to say the least. Not many will come close to those numbers in the future. Indeed it is no stretch to say Steyn has been arguably the greatest fast bowler to have played the game in the last few decades. His legacy shall forever remain intact.

However, time and injuries are catching up with the bowler and a farewell Test could be on the cards sooner rather than later. Getting past Pollock’s tally will be a symbolic achievement, if anything, for Steyn, who is without a doubt the greatest pacer South Africa has ever produced.

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England series the last chance for Manish Pandey to nail down a spot in India's middle-order

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Pandey is no longer the free-flowing batsman that he once was.

As India get ready to battle England for white-ball supremacy, the form of a particular batsman will be under the scanner.

Manish Pandey, who at one point was hailed as the next big thing in Indian cricket, has become a shadow of the batsman who initially burst on to the scene in the 2009 edition of the IPL.

Then a free-flowing batsman with the gift of impeccable timing, Pandey could pack a punch with his shots. Now, almost nine years later, he barely resembles that batsman that set the stage alight as a 19-year-old.

While he has showed his prowess from time to time with innings like the 48-ball 79 that he struck in India’s tour of South Africa earlier this year, such knocks have been too few and too far in between.

With the 2019 ICC World Cup barely 12 months away, his already precarious spot in the India’s limited-overs setup is on the firing line. The 28-year-old has come off a middling IPL campaign for runners-up Sunrisers Hyderabad in which he scored 284 runs in 15 matches at an average of 25.81. More than his low returns in terms of runs, it is Pandey’s strike-rate which has been the cause of the biggest worry.

The right-handed batsman scored the 284 runs at a measly strike-rate of 115. Despite scoring three half-centuries in the recent IPL edition, Pandey’s inability to up the scoring rate and struggles to find the boundaries have stood out.

Pandey has played the occasional blinders.

Pandey has played the occasional blinders.

That shortcoming has been clearly visible in his recent outings for India too with the two-match T20 series against Ireland bringing further proof. In the second T20I at Dublin, Pandey struggled for timing and power in the death overs and could only muster a 20-ball 21 which contained just the one boundary.

That this knock came after KL Rahul and Suresh Raina had given India a blazing start was damning for Pandey. While he was struggling to put the boundaries away, Hardik Pandya came and smashed 32 runs off just nine deliveries to take India past the 200-run mark.

When Pandey was picked ahead of the in-form Dinesh Karthik in the first T20 against Ireland, the groans from Indian fans on social media were audible. Skipper Virat Kohli then stated that the middle-order will see some shuffling over the course of India’s limited-overs clashes in the UK this summer as he sought to try out different combinations in the lead up to the World Cup.

Pandey is competing against Karthik for the middle-order slot.

Pandey is competing against Karthik for the middle-order slot.

It is that one spot in the middle-order that India have failed to tie down for some time now. The likes of KL Rahul, Pandey and Karthik have all auditioned for that role in the past year or so but none has seemingly been able to nail down the spot. In Karthik’s case though, he performed the task to perfection when given the chance in the Nidahas T20 tri-series in Sri Lanka earlier this year.

Rahul, meanwhile, enjoyed a terrific IPL with Kings XI Punjab and has catapulted himself as a strong contender for a spot in India’s playing XI after a fine half-century against Ireland on his India return.

At the moment, Pandey still remains in contention to get that coveted spot in the World Cup squad judging by Kohli’s words and actions so far. But it can be safely said, that time is running out for the Nainital-born batsman. The T20 and ODI series against England will be make or break for him with younger contenders in the form of Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer knocking on the doors.

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Cheteshwar Pujara's overseas struggles will be under the scanner during India's tour of England

Ashish Peter 19/06/2018
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Pujara's overseas record does not make for pretty reading.

With the Afghanistan Test now done and dusted, the Indian team will focus on the upcoming tour of England where they are slated to play five Tests against the hosts.

The England tour will be the second big overseas ‘test’ for Virat Kohli’s men since climbing to the top of the ICC Test rankings. The side were beaten 2-1 in South Africa in a hard-fought three-match Test series earlier this year.

Expectations will be high when Kohli’s men land on English shores. While expectations will be high, the scrutiny will be intense as well.

One particular batsman who will be under the spotlight, apart from the skipper, is Cheteshwar Pujara. While the top-order batsman remains almost unshakable in subcontinent conditions, his performance overseas in the past few years has left plenty to be desired.

The Rajkot batsman was earmarked as a special Test talent early in his domestic career. When he did get his break at the Test level, it seemed that the side had finally found a replacement for Rahul Dravid. As he smashed a superb 153 in the second innings against South Africa at Johannesburg in 2013, it looked liked the Indian team had a new ‘wall’ to lean on.

However, Pujara has been unable to sustain that early promise overseas. The 30-year-old has registered three more overseas tons since but all of them have come against Sri Lanka in familiar subcontinent tracks.

Pujara had a dismal time in South Africa at the start of the year.

Pujara had a dismal time in South Africa at the start of the year.

While Pujara has a healthy average of over 50 after 58 Tests for India, his away record outside Asian conditions is dismal with an average of 27 in 20 Tests.

Ever since that mammoth 153 against South Africa, the right-hander struck just four fifties outside Asia. This includes a run of 17 Tests against the likes of New Zealand, England, Australia and South Africa.

In India’s last overseas tour against South Africa at the start of the year, Pujara had scores of 26, 4, 19, 50 and 1. These are hardly confidence-building knocks from the team’s No3 batsman.

When it comes to his record on English shores, the numbers make even more dreadful reading for Pujara. In the five-Test series in 2014, the right-hander scored 222 runs from 10 innings at an average of 22.2.

His last five Test innings in England – 2, 0, 17, 4 and 11 – make for more sorry reading and he does not inspire confidence on a long and grueling away tour.

Pujara did make the right move by signing up for a county stint with Yorkshire earlier this year. However, things haven’t gone according to plan there. While he did play some excellent knocks in the List A One-Day Cup, Pujara’s form in the first-class competition in England was horrendous. The batsman could only muster 100 runs in eight innings for the county heavyweights as he struggled to come to grips with the swinging Duke ball.

Pujara struggled in red-ball cricket for Yorkshire.

Pujara struggled in red-ball cricket for Yorkshire.

In Afghanistan’s inaugural Test in Bengaluru recently, Pujara was demoted to the No4 position in the batting order to make way for KL Rahul. There too, he struggled to impose himself on the Afghan bowlers despite Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay setting up the perfect platform for him to flourish.

Pujara looks a shadow of the batsman who was resisting the likes of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel in 2013. The England series could be make or break Pujara’s Test career. At the age of 30, another series of overseas failures could put a big question mark over his future in Tests and he could soon be labeled another ‘flat-track bully’.

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