September 29, 2022

Around India in South Africa: conquering the last citadel

Making history is never easy. There will be roadblocks and barriers. It takes heart and skill to overcome them.

And this team, led by Virat Kohli, has the potential to become the first Indian team to win a Test series in South Africa.

In fact, South Africa is the final frontier for the Indian team. It is the only major test nation where India has not triumphed in a series of tests.

There have been near misses in the past. None more so than in the 2006-07 Test series where India, managed by Rahul Dravid, won their first-ever Test on South African soil by ambushing host Wanderers.

S. Sreesanth with a sensational swing and off-strain line, cut through the South African formation. And VVS Laxman’s ethereal 73 in the second run fixed the problem.

READ: Pujara backs Indian strikers to tackle South Africa side move

But then India couldn’t hold on to the lead, failing to hold on despite a helping hand from the rain in the second Test in Durban.

Then India squandered a golden chance to win the Test series when they fell in the decider in Cape Town on a slow pitch that looked more like a sub-continental surface.

The Indian batters struggled against Paul Harris’ left arm rotation and fiery Dale Steyn hit some big shots.

The pain of that setback would further hurt Dravid, who now travels to South Africa as India coach. What the batting legend couldn’t accomplish as a player, he could accomplish as a coach.

These are tough times with Omicron, the latest Covid variant, sweeping South Africa.

Sticking together in a tight bubble can put a huge mental strain on cricketers, but in a tough and demanding campaign it can also bring players together with fewer distractions.

The whole controversy over the removal of Virat Kohli as ODI captain – Kohli contradicted BCCI’s version of events and the way the decision was communicated to him – before the tour is not good news.

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Here, Dravid could showcase his experience and tact in forcing cricketers to focus on matches and iron out differences.

The man who replaced Kohli as ODI captain – Rohit Sharma – will not be available for the three-test series due to fitness concerns.

Rohit’s aggressiveness leading the order will be missed. He is a wonderful shooter and could have relished the South African bouncy pitches.

Banking on experience: The coaches opted for the experience of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. Pujara’s blocking methods at No.3 could blunt the South African pace attack and protect the middle order, while Rahane’s horizontal batting could be his allies on the South African pitches. – K. Murali Kumar

But then, in the smooth-hitting KL Rahul – elevated to vice-captain in Rohit’s absence – and Mayank Agarwal, India have two capable openers.

A good start is essential – the kookaburra ball does maximum damage early on, then settles – and if India can prevent early incursions, they can reach totals that will put pressure on the Proteas.

The coaches opted for the experience of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. Pujara’s blocking methods at No.3 could blunt the South African pace attack and protect the middle order.

Rahane’s horizontal batting – he is an excellent cutter and shooter – could be his allies on South African pitches. That said, both senior batsmen are running out of runs and will be under pressure and watched.

Kohli hasn’t been at his best for a while now – is he in the best mental space? The skipper will be keen to hit with typical balance and timing. When Kohli’s bat appears wide and flows, India prospers.

The talented Shreyas Iyer could relish the challenges posed by the South African pitches.

And Rishabh Pant’s stick will be the X factor. He can, with his flurry of shots, take the game away from the opponent so easily.

This must be India’s best chance to triumph in a test series in South Africa. The host’s stick has holes in it and is overly dependent on skipper Dean Elgar, Quinton de Kock, Aiden Markram and Rassie Van der Dussen who could pull off the series’ surprise package.

The magic of AB de Villiers is absent; India would have won their previous series in South Africa but de Villiers’ gems saw the host out of tight spots.

The solidity of the Faf du Plessis will not be available either. The South Africans would like Temba Bavuma, the vice-captain, to raise his game.

Bowling strength: Indian bowling will mainly depend on the rhythm-spin duo of Jasprit Bumrah and Ravichandran Ashwin. There should be support for Bumrah at all three Test Series locations. Ashwin, who will be the lone spinner in the XI, plays at a good pace, flies the ball and spins it with control. And he lends the depth of strike. -Getty Pictures

As expected, the Indian paced attack will be keen to try their luck with this South African batting formation. The influential Jasprit Bumrah with his speed, swing and lift will return to the country where his test journey began. There should be support for him at all three Test Series venues; Centurions [first Test]wanderers [second] and Newlands [third].

Mohammed Shami with his convincing seam position and release will move the ball with telling speed. It can be fast, slippery and dangerous.

Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Siraj are expected to fight for the third dresser spot unless the surface is an absolute green-top forcing the team to choose four dressers.

The crafty Ishant seems to have lost some of his sizzle but can surprise you and ask questions with his off-strain line and rebound. Siraj is lively, swings the ball back and forth and uses the short ball effectively.

The drawstring and goalie pants shall support the pacemakers. Abandoned catches in slides have cost India dearly in the past.

With Ravindra Jadeja unavailable due to injury, R. Ashwin will be the only line-scorer in the XI. Ashwin plays at a good pace, flies the ball and spins it with control. And he lends the depth of strike.

READ: South Africa focused on defeating India despite off-field issues

If sticks are South Africa’s weak point, bowling is their strength. In Kagiso Rabada, South Africa has a pace of speed, skill and explosive energy.

And Anrich Nortje is arguably the fastest bowler in the world, regularly bowling at around 150 km/h. However, in a blow to the home side, the fiery fast was ruled out with a lingering injury.

Duanne Olivier returns to the South African squad with the end of his spell at Kolpak. Olivier is quicker than he looks, moves the ball and has a deceptive short-throw delivery.

He is set to play the first Test at Centurion on December 26, ahead of Lungi Ngidi who has lost his mind somewhat with fitness issues and indifferent form.

How the Indian stick copes with South Africa’s high-tension attack could well decide the series.

Left arm spinner Keshav Maharaj, who plays with control and craftsmanship and has an effective arm ball, will also keep the pressure on the Indian batters.

South African cricket may not be at its best, but it still takes work to beat the Proteas on home soil.

Will India conquer the final frontier this time? Dravid’s men can, but the team must take every chance that comes their way.