Australia and South Africa are the two countries where India have never won a Test series. In fact, in South Africa, they have their worst Test record, winning only two games out of 17 encounters in six tours. The bouncy wickets and the seam-friendly conditions in the rainbow nation make it a tough place to play cricket for the subcontinental cricketers, if not the toughest.
Starting from January 5 in Cape Town, the Virat Kohli-led Indian team, which is the No. 1 ranked Test side in the world right now, will look to brace for this challenge. And, if experts are to be believed, this time they have a realistic chance of turning the tables, thanks to the sheer class and depth in resources in all the departments.
It is an open secret that the Indian team management is treating the ongoing three-Test series against Sri Lanka as a warm-up for the South Africa tour. Senior members of the team, including the captain, has already spoken about it in recent media interactions. Basically, what they have done is, develop a large pool of players who can be hand-picked and thrown into the deep end at any point. The Indian team, currently, has Test-ready players queuing up for almost every spot in the first eleven.
For starters, they have three openers, each as good as the other. Now, surviving the new ball has always been India’s nemesis overseas. To perform this thankless job in South Africa, this time India will have Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul and Murli Vijay — all proven performers, with runs behind them.
Dhawan, since his comeback in the Test set-up in Sri Lanka three months back, has scores of 190, 14, 35, 119, 8 and 94. Recently in the Kolkata Test, the southpaw was preferred in the playing eleven ahead of India’s long-time first-choice opener Murli Vijay.
His opening partner in Kolkata, Rahul, too, is going through a purple patch. In the massive 2016-17 home season of India, in which they played 13 Tests, Rahul was part of nine games. In his last 12 Test innings, the right-hander from Karnataka has nine half-centuries. Though, experts feel he needs to convert those starts into big hundreds.
The other contender for the opening spot is Vijay, who made a comeback to the Test side after eight months and scored a ton, here in Nagpur. During India’s last overseas touring cycle (South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia), Vijay was one of the three Indian batsmen to average over 40.
Picking any two out of these three will be a headache-inducing job — but, a happy headache.
In the middle order, there are two run-machines, Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli, who have averaged 60.81 and 70.43 respectively in the last couple of years. Yes, Rahane’s lack of form is a concern, but following Rohit Sharma’s ton in Nagpur, there is a back-up ready to take his place, if needed.
In Hardik Pandya, the team has found the ideal pace bowling all-rounder. On those bouncy South African wickets, he will be a handy hit-the-deck type of bowler, who is more than capable of bowling 12-15 overs in the day. With bat, he always adds value, but in South African conditions, Pandya will be more useful as a bowler than as a batsman.
However, as Pandya’s back-up, the Tamil Nadu all-rounder Vijay Shankar is in the scheme of things. On the back of a solid domestic show, he recently got a Test call-up and chances are that in the Delhi Test the youngster will get a look in.
When it comes to wicketkeeping, Wriddhiman Saha will be the first-choice option, no doubt. But it has been learnt, the team management is willing to take Parthiv Patel to South Africa as a back-up.
Finally, on the bowling front, India have a plethora of options, whether it be in the spin or pace department.
Since the last home season, the performance of the fast bowlers has been the biggest positive for this Indian team. In fact, India have seldom before had as many quality pacers at their command at one point.
The impressive part is, whether it is Mohammed Shami or Umesh Yadav, or Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Ishant Sharma; everyone has not only chipped in but at times outclassed each other.
And remember, in the 2016-17 period India have mostly played in sub-continental conditions, where pace bowlers do not get much sideways movement or bounce. Yet, someone like Umesh out-bowled a highly rated Josh Hazlewood on these placid wickets, when Australia were here for the Test series, earlier this year.
On the other hand, spinners may not have many roles to play in South Africa. Still, India will have quite a few quality options to choose from. Along with the first-choice spin attack of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, young chinaman Kuldeep Yadav is likely to board the flight to Cape Town.
If a team is as strong as its weakest link, then this team can perhaps be compared to Ricky Ponting’s Australian team, which could have put up a second eleven just as strong as the original. No wonder, they dominated world cricket for a majority of the first decade of this century.
So, brace yourself, in the new year, we have an existing contest on the cards.