Upbeat India braces for South Africa Test on home turf

While Virat Kohli's men continue their hold over the No. 1 rank, the visiting South African side is undergoing a period of transition.

Ashwin and Jadeja were South Africa's chief tormentors in the 2015 season when it lost the Test series 3-0.   -  K.R. Deepak

It was January 2018. At the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, Mohammed Shami ran through South Africa’s lower order, taking five for 28 as India braved an unfavourable pitch to win the third Test by 63 runs.

Virat Kohli and his men lost the series 1-2 but showed a lot of character to usher in a new year that culminated with a first-ever Test series win in Australia. But plenty has changed since India and South Africa last met in Test whites.

While India’s progress to this point has been smooth and well-planned, the Proteas are going through an inevitable transition period, with veterans Hashim Amla, A.B. de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Imran Tahir walking into the sunset.

READ | De Kock evolving into Test role after initial struggles

It’s against this backdrop that the two teams resume their Test rivalry on Wednesday at the ACA-VDCA Stadium in Visakhapatnam.

Opening gamble

The opening slot is a jigsaw puzzle the Indian team is yet to figure out. Leading up to this series, the host has tried K.L. Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and even Hanuma Vihari at the top. But it will be Rohit Sharma who will open the batting along with Agarwal, India going the Virender Sehwag way with the Mumbai batsman.

 

Sehwag, who made his debut against the rainbow nation as a No. 6, was promoted to open the innings against England a year later, and he vindicated then captain Sourav Ganguly’s decision by cracking a ton and making the spot his own.

For the first six years of his career, though, Sharma has struggled to justify a spot for the five-day format. But a chance to open in Tests could prove to be a game-changer for the 32-year-old, who has opened just thrice in first-class cricket.

READ | Saha gets nod ahead of Pant for Test series opener

This will be the second Test to be played at the stadium, with the first one played between India and England in November 2016 which the host won. Both Cheteshwar Pujara — who struggled for runs against the West Indies in August-September — and Virat Kohli had scored centuries in the first innings of that match, and spinner Ravichandran Ashwin returned a five-wicket haul in the first innings.

Meanwhile, Wriddhiman Saha has been picked ahead of the struggling Rishabh Pant for the first Test. India skipper Virat Kohli was effusive in his praise for Saha on Tuesday. "He is fit and will start for us here. His keeping credentials are there for everyone to see. According to me, he is the best keeper in the world. It was unfortunate to see him miss so much cricket with injury," Kohli said.

Bumrah ruled out

Jasprit Bumrah's wait to play a Test at home continues after he was ruled out of the upcoming series with a minor stress fracture in his lower back. Bumrah's absence is a big blow for the host. Since his Test debut in January 2018, he has quickly established himself as one of the world's most dangerous fast bowlers, picking up 62 wickets in 12 Tests at an average of 19.24.

Kagiso Rabada will spearhead South Africa's attack after the retirement of Dale Steyn. Photo: AFP

 

In his absence, Shami and Ishant Sharma will lead the pace attack with Ashwin, who didn't get a Test in the Caribbean, and Ravindra Jadeja being the two spin options.

On the other hand, South Africa, though not short of pace riches, is left to ponder its potency. Kagiso Rabada will want to begin the new international season with a bagful of wickets against the world’s No. 1-ranked Test side.

READ | Rohit Sharma not to be rushed in Test opener role, says Virat Kohli

Lungi Ngidi, who was ruled out due to a hamstring injury midway through South Africa’s stuttering ICC ODI World Cup campaign, made a comeback in the two unofficial Tests against India A. The 23-year-old snapped up six wickets in four innings at an economy rate of 3.28 and will play wingman to Rabada.

The spin department will be spearheaded by slow left-arm orthodox bowler Keshav Maharaj and right-arm off-spinner Dane Piedt. Maharaj is Yorkshire’s second most successful bowler in championship cricket in England this season with 38 victims in five matches at an economy rate of 2.70. He will hope to carry that form into the three Tests in India.

Markram has warmed up well for the series with a couple of hundreds in the A-tour and the practice game. Photo: K.R. Deepak

 

In batting, South Africa welcomes back big guns Faf du Plessis and Aiden Markram, who will add experience to its XI. Markram made the most of the chance to bat by scoring a century (100 retired hurt) in a practice match against Board President's XI in Vizianagaram. 

South Africa already issued a warning during the final T20 International in Bengaluru that its ability to deal with pressure has changed in some respects. For the Proteas, to be able to continue that into the Test series will be a marker of progress in the mental aspect of the game.

India's playing XI: Virat Kohli (captain), Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), R Ashwin, R Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami

South Africa's squad: Faf du Plessis (captain), Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock, Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Senuran Muthusamy, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Vernon Philander, Dane Piedt, Kagiso Rabada, Rudi Second