Opening conundrum for India as African safari beckons

With Shikhar Dhawan recovering in time for the first Test at Newlands, the team-management will be left with the tough choice of leaving out one of the three in-form openers.

If Shikhar Dhawan’s fitness holds, the chances are that he would walk out to open with Murali Vijay in the first Test at Newlands, Cape Town.   -  AFP

With the Table Mountain forming a fascinating backdrop, the ground at Newlands makes a spectacular viewing. B

Below the majestic mountain and adjoining the venue, suburban trains journey past you. Behind the railway line is an old brewery.

Inside the stadium, there are hills on both sides where spectators can enjoy the sunshine. There is an old world charm about this venue, that drips with character.

It is in this sun-lit arena that India and South Africa will meet in the first Test, beginning Friday, of a much-awaited three-Test series.

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Openers to take centre stage

From here on, rankings and past displays will not matter as much as performance on the day. Heart will be as important as technique.

The Indians had a long session, and the grass on the surface for the Test would have reminded them of the challenges they face in this series.

The distinctly green surface is expected to be lively, with pace, bounce and seam movement. The openers will don a key role for India.

There was some good news for the side when Shikhar Dhawan indicated he had made a swift recovery from an ankle injury. The left-handed opener batted at the nets and should be fit for the series opener.

READ: Dhawan fit for first Test, Jadeja down with viral “illness”

The opening dilemma

This also leaves the team-management with the tough choice of leaving out one of the three in-form openers. If Dhawan’s fitness holds, the chances are that he would walk out to open with Murali Vijay.

This said K.L. Rahul is a worthy batsman whose back-foot play is suited to conditions such as these. Dhawan, the left-hander, would make the pacemen switch their line, and his aggression, if it comes off, can knock the bowlers off their rhythm but Rahul does offer the batting greater solidity.   

Given that the Kookaburra ball does a lot more in the first 25-30 overs and swings a lot less, conventional and reverse, subsequently, the openers need to prevent early inroads. Their significance cannot be overemphasised.

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Ashwin an automatic choice

If Dhawan has recovered, Ravindra Jadeja is down with a viral fever. Although this left-arm spinning all-rounder can be valuable with his methods, his absence should not hurt India too much in the context of this Test.

Ravichandran Ashwin, in any case, is poised to play for India in the first Test as its lone spinner. It would have helped, though, if India possessed a left-armer in its pace attack, someone who could have created the rough for the off-spinner to exploit.

With India likely to play three pacemen – the side does have firepower – Rohit Sharma is expected to be the extra batsman, coming in at No. 6.

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Steyn doubtful starter

The South Africans gambolled in the park in the afternoon, playing football for long before settling on cricket practice. The host is not short of confidence.

South Africa comprehends the conditions well. It knows that the wind here plays a critical part in shaping cricketing fortunes and if the North Easterly blows in from the mountains, the ball can dart around a lot more.

The home side has a couple of important selection decisions to make. How to fit in great fast bowler Dale Steyn in the XI and whether to play an all-rounder for an additional batsman.

At the moment it looks as if Steyn, feeling his way back from a long injury lay-off, will miss out with Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander forming an imposing pace pack.

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If the pitch dries out – there is a rain forecast for Sunday though - as the game progresses then impressive left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj could do some damage. 

Pace bowling all-rounder Chris Morris might, however, come in for batsman Temba Bavuma.

As the Indians begin their African Safari, they need to remember that the South Africans, seeking to avenge collapses on spinner-friendly tracks in India, will come at them hard.

It’s game on in the foothills of the mountain!