“The tour to South Africa presents the young Indian squad with varied opportunities to rectify their previous stats and records, as well as carve out new impressive figures over the next one month”.
The New Year has settled and the celebrity marriages are done and over with it. The easier attacks of Sri Lanka have been bettered and the familiar by-lanes of home conditions have been emphatically conquered. With the Indian cricket team setting foot in South Africa, the battle of supremacy well and truly begins, with the first Test match between the two nations from Friday beginning the long overseas season for the Virat Kohli-led team. The opportunity to showcase their growing potential after the retirement of their stalwarts and the chance to rectify their abysmal record away from home lies in the reckoning as the squad readies itself for the challenges of Kagiso Rabada and AB de Villiers.
The seventeen-member strong side, which has been unanimously termed as one of the strongest sides to tour the Rainbow Nation, is coming back off a memorable home season and consistent performances which saw them climb to the numero uno spot in the ICC Test rankings. But numbers matter for little when the play is in progress and Kohli would be well aware of the cons of going ahead with over-confidence. The right team selection according to the conditions on offer will go a long way in determining the final result of the three-match series.
Indian Squad: Virat Kohli (Capt), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (vc), Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Parthiv Patel, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah.
Strengths: Coming into 2018 at the back of a successful 2017, one would be tempted to say that the strengths in the Indian side override the weaknesses. Every member has risen up to the occasion in a tough situation and the favourable results last year were not only a combination of unified hard work but also sparks of individual brilliance.
But South Africa is expected to bring with it its own challenges and the one player whom India can keep banking upon is their charismatic leader Kohli. Not only is he an astute reader of the game, his reliance and confidence on the pacers have ensured a marked contrast in the Test team’s approach ever since he took over in 2015. As a batsman, he is rated as the second best batsman in the world currently, second only to phenomenon Steven Smith and the rich-haul of double hundreds give a peak into his form currently.
In the last twelve months, he has notched up runs at an average of 75.64 and though his thick form is being attributed to the sub-standard rivals, it is no doubt that the right-hander remains one of India’s strongest fulcrums in the series. He did average just 9.2 against the Australians last year and the nightmare of the tour to England in 2014 have barely been able to escape him, but trust Kohli to combine beautifully with his team-mates to conjure up a performance worth applauding.
Kohli’s inclusion in this list might not be a surprise to many but the inclusion of the pace-bowling attack definitely is. Being termed a side that relied on the spinners without possessing worthy match-winning seamers, the presence of Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and newbie Jasprit Bumrah brings with it waves of excitement.
The Indian attack brings with it a variety that was missing previously. Bhuvi, along with his knuckleballs and slowers is expected to emerge as the spearhead of the attack, attaining swing from the conditions and Ishant’s experience will hold him in good stead. Umesh and Shami have the ability to constantly scale the 140kmph mark and Bumrah, who might not get a game in unless an injury to a bowler comes with oodles of variations to his name. Even Hardik Pandya can prove to a wicket-taker and with Kohli unabashedly stating the team’s preference for bouncier and faster pitches even in India, South Africa might not emerge such a monstrous demon as it is being stated to be. Remember, two of India’s biggest overseas victories came in Perth in 2008 and in Lord’s in 2014- wickets that had inches of grass firmly in place!
Weaknesses: Years later, one will look back at this contest between India and South Africa for being one that began with the spin duo in the Indian attack emerging as a weakness to the side. Both Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have been masterful in their wicket-taking ability in their own den but once they move outside the sub-continent, their averages fall and their performances slacken. Even though spin is not expected to play a major role in the series, the importance of a world-class spinner, who can provide the team with essential break-throughs cannot be understated.
Ashwin has picked up just 46 of his 304 wickets away from the subcontinent, and Jadeja has fared no better with an average of 36.82 abroad. With conditions offering bounce, subtle variations in their length and line could go a long way in reversing their dismal records away from home.
With only one spinner expected to make the eleven, the favours are highly in Jadeja’s favour. The South African batting squad consists of five right-handers in the top-seven and the left-handed Jadeja will benefit with the angle of the ball coming into the batsmen. However, with reports suggesting that the bowler from Rajkot might miss the first Test due to a viral illness, Ashwin might make the cut in the final eleven.
Being a finger spinner, he is often ineffective against the right-handers; his carom balls, off-spin and straighter balls failing to wreak havoc against them. He is prone to bowling the same predictable line in matches, which ensures he goes wicketless. Not only will this put unnecessary pressure on the pace attack, it will also not help improve his chances of gaining back an entry into the limited overs team.
Opportunities: The tour to South Africa presents the young Indian squad with varied opportunities to rectify their previous stats and records, as well as carve out new impressive figures over the next one month.
For Cheteshwar Pujara, who is coming into the series with an impressive average of 67.05 that was notched up last year, the series offers him the opportunity to gulf the gap between his home and his overseas records. In the sub-continent, the number three batsman averages 65.55; a number which falls to 30.9 abroad. With just one hundred away from the dusty bowls of Asia, scored way back in 2013 in South Africa, Pujara has the opportunity to dismiss the questions about his legendary status by carrying on his vein of runs into this series as well.
Unlike his teammate, Ajinkya Rahane’s journey in the Test field bears a contrasting note. He is a player who has been unable to set the home season on fire, with just 543 runs since the beginning of last year, including a solitary hundred against Sri Lanka in Colombo but where he really flourishes are the challenging pitches that are offered on tours. His tenacity to overcome the struggles in overcast conditions that offer seam and bounce makes him an indispensable part of the unit and his away average of 53.44, which is much higher than his home average of 35.64, has made him an integral member of the unit. Hence, ahead of a stern overseas season, the series against the Proteans offers Rahane the chance to let go of his below-par form and emerge a noted match-winner for India once again.
The conundrum over the number six slot has risen massively after Rohit Sharma grasped onto his Test opportunity in the absence of Hardik Pandey with a fluent century against the Lankans. However, with Kohli favouring the all-rounder due to his nonchalant work ethic, competitive spirit, and his seaming deliveries that will ably support his aggressive batting, Pandya should effectively grab his chances in the series to emerge the seaming all-rounder India had always been on the lookout for. In case he is unable to do so, Rohit would do well to seal his spot in the Test arena after already having made the LOI format his own.
Not only will the three Tests offer individuals the probability to correct their weaknesses, it will also allow the team as a whole to improve upon their overseas records. Often termed as “home bullies” with no ability to stand up in alien conditions, the Kohli-led squad should combine to prove that they can indeed be the number one team in the world.
Threats: With the nation of South Africa facing its worse drought in the last sixty-seven years, the groundsmen have been unable to water the pitches as much as they would have liked. With the wickets expected to be slower, the batting is supposed to ease out after the initial burst with the new ball. This scenario throws the Indian openers in a tricky position. They will not only face the vengeance from the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Rabada and Vernon Philander in the initial first hour of an innings, but in case either is dismissed, Pujara will be out to bat, a player whose overseas record is not a confidence-giver.
Also, with an iffy Shikhar Dhawan all set to partner Murali Vijay over the more technical KL Rahul, the Indian team will need to constantly waive off the threat that the menacing pact attack is expected to bring for them.
All said and done, the high-octane series, with excitements galore and challenges afresh, promises to be an enthralling affair!