The devil's in the detail as India braces for African challenge

At the heart of the contest will be the strategy. When India, the top-ranked team in Tests, clashes with South Africa, No. 2, small things can make a big difference.

The Indian slip catching will need to support the pacemen; a key factor in the Test and the series.    -  AFP

These are days of severe water scarcity in Cape Town. As the fear of ‘day zero’ mounts, boreholes are being drilled in this beautiful city and its surrounding areas.

When India and South Africa face off in the first Test of a marquee three-match series at Newlands from Friday, it will effectively be ‘Cricket in the Time of Drought.’

Even as they follow government advisories to save precious water, the free-spirited Cape Townians, who breathe music, dance and sports, are living it up.

READ: Shastri: ‘Next 18 months will define Indian cricket’

The annual parade on the iconic Long Street at the beginning of the new year drew more crowds than the last time around. And the much-awaited Test here is expected to be a blockbuster.

Even as a pleasant breeze greets visitors in these parts, the cricketing temperatures are already rising. 

Attention to detail

At the heart of the contest will be the strategy. When India, the top-ranked team in Tests, clashes with South Africa, No. 2, small things can make a big difference.

Thursday was a day of optional practice for the Indian team and no player came to the ground. The Indians have been training hard and long for the past few days and took a break on the eve of the Test to “recharge batteries and get into the Test match frame of mind mentally.”

READ: Kohli, Shastri ‘prepared’ for tough South Africa tour

Aspects such as the depth in the line-up and the contributions from the lower order and the tail could be the difference between a famous victory and an agonising defeat. On a surface sporting grass, every run counts. 

Win toss, bowl first?

Even as there is much focus on grass, some cracks, caused by the rather dry climate here, are visible too on the pitch. As the match progresses, these fissures on the pitch could widen bringing both the pacemen, who can hit them and the spinners into play.

But then, the Cape Town pitch, according to the locals, also has a history of offering help to the pacemen over the first two days and then easing out.

READ: Opening conundrum for India as African safari beckons

So, the team getting the spin of the coin right is likely to bowl first and exploit the lateral movement. It would also have to factor in the possibility of batting last on a pitch on which the bowlers would be zeroing in on the cracks.

Steyn in or out?

There have been talks in the South African camp about playing four fast bowlers here. This means the host would get Quinton de Kock to bat at No. 6 and then have Vernon Philander (he has a laudable 38 Test wickets at 18.23 at this venue), Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj following the specialist batsmen.

READ: Steyn ready for India series

The induction of the mercurial Steyn at the expense of either batsman Temba Bavuma or all-rounder Chris Morris would be tempting for South Africa – it could then have a lethal four-pronged pace attack. But then, such a ploy might also leave South Africa with a long tail and little cover in the event of a collapse.

Will South Africa take the risk? If Steyn plays it would be a brazenly attacking ploy.

Rahul likely to miss out

The Indian pace attack of Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and either Umesh Yadav or Ishant Sharma could threaten the South African line-up. Ishant has come into the fray due to the cracks on the surface; the lanky bowler can get the ball to jag around delivering from a height and bowl long spells.

READ: Bumrah can be good choice for 1st Test: Nehra

The Indian slip catching will need to support the pacemen; a key factor in the Test and the series. 

Shikhar Dhawan is all set to partner M. Vijay with K.L. Rahul likely to miss out. It would make sense if Rahul is played down the order to counter the second new ball but the team-management is unlikely to go down that path.

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

On Friday it will be “lights, camera and action,” as the two heavyweights trade blows.

READ: Current Indian attack best in the last 60-70 years: Prasanna

The teams: 

India (from): Virat Kohli (captain), M. Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), R. Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, K.L. Rahul, Hardik Pandya, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja, Parthiv Patel (wk).

South Africa (from): Faf du Plessis (captain), Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Qunton de Kock (wk), Chirs Morris, Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Temba Bavuma, Andile Phehlukwayo, Theyunis de Bruyn.

Match starts at 2 p.m. IST