Armed with a new set of skilful T20 players after an exacting IPL sojourn and with a new person at the helm – Rishabh Pant – India resumes its quest to firm up a solid group of players for the T20 World Cup. Pant was appointed captain for the T20 series against South Africa with just a day to go for the first T20I at the Arun Jaitley Stadium here on Thursday. K. L. Rahul and Kuldeep Yadav were ruled out of the five-match series due to injuries at training.

Journalists were left waiting for an hour for a scheduled press conference at the Arun Jaitley Stadium here on Wednesday and it was Pant, the new captain, who arrived amid claps just minutes after he was handed his role.

“It's a very good feeling. Didn't come in very good circumstances, but at the same time I'm feeling happy. I would like to thank the BCCI for giving me this opportunity to lead the Indian side. I'll try to make the most of it,” Pant said.

 

Despite the fresh faces and a new leadership group – Hardik Pandya has been appointed vice-captain – India will be favourite to win and thereby make a new world record of most consecutive wins in T20Is, having won 12 on the trot – a run that dates back to the group stage of the T20 World Cup in the UAE. All members of the squad are potential match winners in the format and have been productive in their respective roles in IPL 2022.

The series ahead, then, serves to broaden the pool of players primed to fulfil their roles for India. Some of the new stars – alongside some not-so-new stars making a comeback based on their IPL performances – may even make a solid case for a more permanent role in the team.

The good news for India is that Hardik Pandya is not only fully fit and bowling regularly but also in great form with the bat. This series gives Hardik, now the second in command, a nice warm-up and a chance to align with the team management's plans and expectations before the T20 World Cup. It is also a chance for Yuzvendra Chahal to cement his place in the playing eleven and be an automatic choice for the marquee tournament later this year. If not for the injury to his right hand while batting in the nets here, Kuldeep also had a great opportunity to gain prominence in India colours again. Both spinners excelled in the IPL, but the IPL was especially cathartic for Kuldeep, whose performances across formats since the 2019 World Cup had been on the decline.

Among fast bowlers in the squad, Umran Malik, who bowled with oomph in the IPL, and Arshdeep Singh may not be given a chance to play straightaway. Head coach Rahul Dravid on Tuesday suggested that Harshal Patel, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Avesh Khan may be the first three choices. With Hardik as the all-rounder, India may go in for two seamers and two spinners. After his exploits with the bat for Royal Challengers Bangalore – a batting average of 55 and a strike-rate of 182 – Dinesh Karthik is likely to find a place in the lower middle-order.

South Africa is also full of players capable of winning matches on their own. Many of them were part of the IPL and are familiar with the Indian players. The hot weather won't be a problem either. But having not played a single T20 since the T20 World Cup in the UAE last year, it won't be easy for them to perform symbiotically as a group in the format after very quickly.

David Miller, Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje will be raring to have a go at the Indians, but the fact that their only spinners in Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj haven't played much in the last two months tilts the scales in the home team's favour.

India can easily be surprised, however. The last time it played a T20 at the Feroz Shah Kotla grounds, in November, 2019, it lost to Bangladesh. Bangladesh had seemed better prepared for that game as they bowled with a plan and curtailed the run-scoring by consistently bowling back of a length and dishing out the slower delivery. India may take lessons from that and plan well for a track known to be low and slow. Bowling back of a length rather than full could be a good strategy here as the straight boundaries are very short.

The Indians will be keen on redeeming themselves, too, in white-ball cricket after having suffered a 3-0 loss under Rahul's captaincy earlier this year in South Africa.

Teams (from)

India:  Rishabh Pant (c, wk), Hardik Pandya (vc), Ruturaj Gaikwad, Ishan Kishan, Deepak Hooda, Shreyas Iyer, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Venkatesh Iyer, Yuzvendra Chahal, Axar Patel, Ravi Bishnoi, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Harshal Patel, Avesh Khan, Arshdeep Singh, Umran Malik

South Africa: Temba Bavuma (c), Quinton de Kock (wk), Reeza Hendricks, Aiden Markram, David Miller, Rassie van der Dussen, Wayne Parnell, Dwayne Pretorius, Marco Jansen, Heinrich Klaasen (wk), Tristan Stubbs, Keshav Maharaj, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Kagiso Rabada, Tabraiz Shamsi.