After notching up scintillating wins in Australia (twice) and England, India will be out to crack the all-elusive South Africa code when the three-match Test series begins with the Boxing Day game at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Sunday.
After the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus threatened to cancel the tour, the fixtures were revised with the Tests and ODIs retaining their places and changes in dates.
South Africa, with its pace, bounce and challenging pitches, has been a place where India hasn’t won yet. Australia and England have been conquered but South Africa is yet to be. In 2018, India gave a glimmer of hope when it began the first Test at Cape Town very well. But South Africa bounced back and quashed hopes of an Indian win, eventually winning the series 2-1.
Starting the series well is something vice-captain KL Rahul is extremely aware of.
“The discussion so far has only been about the first Test match. We are not thinking too far ahead. The first Test match of the series is the most important for us to start well. All our discussion and focus has been on trying to do the best in the first game and get the team off to a good start, be it with the bat or ball,” Rahul had said in the virtual press conference on Friday.
On paper, India has got the arsenal to match South Africa in terms of pace line-up. Since the tour of 2018, Jasprit Bumrah’s stocks have risen in Test cricket, followed by Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma with Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur completing the hexagon of India’s world-class pace attack.
The tourists’ pace bowling contingent is something which South Africa captain Dean Elgar had singled out as the biggest challenge for the hosts.
“Their strength at the moment lies in their bowling. We are extremely aware of that as well. They have had a lot of successes as a bowling unit. They have got a lot of older spearhead bowlers that lead the attack and have got a good backup set of bowlers as well. Being in South Africa, I am pretty sure their bowling attack will exploit the conditions reasonably well.”
Though India is missing the services of left-arm spin all-rounders Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, trust off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin to be the sole spin lead with Thakur filling in for the all-rounder’s slot.
But the main concerns of the Indian team have been in batting, with captain Virat Kohli and senior pros Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane in the middle of a lean patch.
In the recent home series against New Zealand, India was majorly bailed out of trouble by newbie Shreyas Iyer in Kanpur and opener Mayank Agarwal in Mumbai.
With Rohit Sharma out of the series due to a left hamstring injury, the batters have to put their best foot forward.
South Africa, on the other hand, will be playing a Test match for the first time since playing two matches against West Indies in June. Though the hosts’ batting might have been depleted by the retirements of AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis, captain Dean Elgar is still there with Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen for company.
But they will have more batting concerns in terms of experience with wicketkeeper-batter Quinton de Kock only available for the first Test before going on paternity leave.
But their bowling unit, led by Kagiso Rabada, is still capable of troubling the Indian batters despite the absence of Anrich Nortje. Lungi Ngidi, who shone with 6/39 on Test debut against India at this venue in 2018, has been plagued by injuries and recently, COVID-19. South Africa will be hoping that he and the returning Duanne Olivier can maintain the strength of their fast-bowling stocks.
In the Proteas’ favour, Centurion has been a fortress, just like the Gabba has been for Australia. In 26 Tests at the venue, South Africa have won 21 times and faced defeat only twice, against England in 2000 and Australia in 2014.
But with them and India having pockets of weakness in batting, one can say that the series could be decided by runs and to some extent, the ability to dismiss the batters quickly.
South Africa: Dean Elgar (captain), Temba Bavuma (vice-captain), Quinton de Kock (wicket-keeper), Kagiso Rabada, Sarel Erwee, Beuran Hendricks, George Linde, Keshav Maharaj, Lungi Ngidi, Aiden Markram, Wiaan Mulder, Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen, Kyle Verreynne, Marco Jansen, Glenton Stuurman, Prenelan Subrayen, Sisanda Magala, Ryan Rickelton and Duanne Olivier.
India: Virat Kohli (captain), KL Rahul (vice-captain), Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant (wicket-keeper), Wriddhiman Saha (wicket-keeper), Ravichandran Ashwin, Jayant Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Shardul Thakur and Mohammed Siraj.