India's pace delight and other key talking points ahead of first Test against South Africa

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India have a formidable pace attack for the tour of South Africa.

India are set to start 2018 with their most challenging Test in recent times as they take on South Africa at the Newlands in Cape Town on Friday.

The Men in Blue arrive in South Africa full of confidence but face the prospect of running into a firing Proteas pace-attack.

The subcontinent side has never ever won a Test series in South Africa and coupled with their reputation of being poor travellers, Virat Kohli and his men have it all to prove despite the skipper stating the contrary before their arrival.

With the three-match series set to be a gruelling affair, we take a look at how India could shape up for the battle.

VIJAY LEADS STRONG OPENING CONTINGENT

The Indians are blessed when it comes to openers with the trio of Murali Vijay, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan excelling with the bat.

While Vijay and Rahul started 2017 as the established pair, injuries had afforded another chance to Dhawan in the five-day format and the 32-year-old Delhi man grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

So much so, that it was Dhawan and Vijay who ended the year as the favoured pair despite Rahul scoring seven consecutive fifties.

With the left-hander ruled out of the first Test, it will be Vijay and Rahul to take guard for India.

The former has an excellent temperament and can blunt the new ball with his patient approach. He will be India’s opening mainstay in South Africa with Rahul and Dhawan fighting it out for the second spot.

Vijay will be India's opening mainstay in South Africa.

Vijay will be India’s opening mainstay in South Africa.

IN-FORM PUJARA AND KOHLI FORM SOLID SPINE

In Cheteshwar Pujara, India have a number three who has flourished in the last two years after losing his place due to poor form.

The 31-year-old ended 2017 as the second highest run-scorer in Tests, behind the unstoppable Steve Smith with 1,140 run at an average of 67.

The man once destined to replicate Rahul Dravid’s success as the ‘Wall’, Pujara’s penchant to play the big innings will be crucial to India’s chances on African shores.

Behind him, Kohli has been in the form of his life in 2017 where he averaged a staggering 75.64 on the back of three double-tons and two centuries.

Now the No2 ranked Test batsmen in the world behind Smith, the Indian skipper will be itching to sustain that success overseas.

He will be bidding to improve his record since the 2013 tour of South Africa where he ended the series as the second highest run-scorer behind Pujara.

Kohli and Pujara were on song in the 2013 tour of South Africa.

Kohli and Pujara were on song in the 2013 tour of South Africa.

INDIA’S LOWER MIDDLE-ORDER CONUNDRUM

While Ajinkya Rahane would be the first name on the team-sheet for any overseas tour given he has scored a 90 plus knock in all his recent travels for India, his horrid run of form against Sri Lanka in the recent series means he arrives in South Africa lacking in confidence.

Rahane, along with Pujara and Kohli, were excellent with the bat against South Africa four years ago where the trio ended the series as the three highest run-scorers.

However, with Rohit Sharma showing decent form in recent months, the Indian management could be tempted to give him a bat instead of Rahane if they decide to play five bowlers.

The smart money would be on Rahane to retain his place given that Sharma has never been able to hold down a spot in the Test side due to his overseas struggles, but do not be surprised if Kohli and Ravi Shastri opt to go with the in-form batsman in the first Test.

Elsewhere, Wriddhiman Saha has been solid behind the stumps and with the bat, while Parthiv Patel will provide the backup option in case of an injury.

Rahane's poor form could open the door for Rohit Sharma.

Rahane’s poor form could open the door for Rohit Sharma.

THE PANDYA QUESTION AND ASHWIN/JADEJA CHOICE

It is not a secret that Hardik Pandya is being groomed by India to be its pace-all-rounder for overseas conditions with the 24-year-old enjoying a meteoric rise since his introduction last year.

Pandya would be competing with Sharma for a spot in the playing XI depending on the composition of the team.

If Kohli opts for four bowlers, Pandya could lose out to Sharma, but should play if the skipper goes for five bowling options.

While three pacers would be a given for South African conditions, it would mean a direct shootout between Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja for the spinner’s slot. Both enjoyed a strong 2017 by finishing in the top-five wicket-takers for the calendar year.

In 2013, Jadeja outshone Ashwin in the series with six wickets while the latter went wicketless.

Jadeja’s excellent control and accuracy provides India with the option of tying down one end while bowling, but Ashwin’s impressive array of variations offers more wicket-taking opportunities.

One of Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja will miss out.

One of Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja will miss out.

INDIA’S PACE DELIGHT

While all the talk has been about South Africa’s lethal pace quartet of Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel, India have a fast-bowling attack to shout about too.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar has emerged as the new leader of the pace attack with his mastery of seam-bowling. Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami have also excelled despite playing mostly in subcontinent conditions. The former can be a threat on any wicket with his pace, while the latter can be lethal with the movement and reverse-swing he generates.

Meanwhile, Ishant Sharma has proved to be an able back-up option as shown by his displays against Sri Lanka.

With Jasprit Bumrah being handed his maiden Test call-up, India have an abundance of fast-bowling options, a situation they have rarely found themselves in over the past ten years.

Bhuvneshwar has emerged as the leader of India's pace attack.

Bhuvneshwar has emerged as the leader of India’s pace attack.

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Five things you didn't know about England's Mason Crane ahead of his Ashes debut

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Hampshire’s 20-year-old leg-spinner Mason Crane is expected to make his Test debut in the fifth Ashes Test at Sydney, as England look to salvage something from a failed tour Down Under.

Here, Press Association Sport looks at five things you might not know about the player.

GOT A LUCKY BREAK

Crane fell for the art of wrist spin when watching Australia great Shane Warne during the 2005 Ashes series.

However, he was released by home county Sussex at under-14 level before his college teacher Raj Maru, a former Hampshire left-arm spinner who was still involved with the county, saw his potential and paved the way for him to join the side’s academy.

PROVED HIS WORTH IN AUSTRALIA

Crane became the first overseas cricketer in 32 years to make their debut for New South Wales when he played in the Sheffield Shield against South Australia in March this year.

He was Down Under during the winter as part of the England and Wales cricket Board’s overseas placement scheme with Hampshire team-mate Will Smith but worked his way into former Australia leg-spinner Stuart MacGill’s NSW after performing well for grade cricket side Gordon.

The last player to achieve that feat was former Pakistan captain Imran Khan in 1984-1985.

SELECTION STRIFE

It may seem unusual for a player about to be pitched into the heat of an Ashes battle – but Crane was not an automatic starter for his county last year.

His omission for the first three games of the domestic season appeared to frustrate England’s hopes for the young prospect with national selector James Whitaker even betraying a rare hint of dischord.

He said: ”It would have been good to see him play some cricket this year but we have no control over the selection of the Hampshire team”.

There was one obvious line of defence in the identity of the man chosen in his place, Liam Dawson, who also started the summer as England’s first-choice Test spinner before being dumped.

ELGAR…AT THE DOUBLE

The Hampshire bowler had South Africa international Dean Elgar in a spin during a County Championship match with Somerset in May.

Crane accidentally delivered a short, wide delivery that managed to skip back towards the batsman and double-bounce at the feet of the 30-year-old before clattering into the stumps.

The reaction of bowler and batsman was priceless as disbelief from the pair was clearly visible.

NOTABLE SCALPS

Crane’s professional career may still be at the fledgling stage, but he has claimed some notable scalps already.

His first senior wicket was that of Sri Lanka ace Kumar Sangakkara, which he took on his Hampshire debut against Surrey in July 2015, while his maiden England wicket – and only one to date – was that of South Africa superstar AB de Villiers during this summer’s T20 series.

The youngster has several other notable names on his list of victims as well, including Mahela Jayawardene, Chris Rogers, Jonathan Trott, Jacques Rudolph, Adam Voges, Paul Collingwood and Ravi Bopara.​

Provided by Press Association Sport

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England leg-spinner Mason Crane looks set for debut in fifth Ashes Test

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​Leg-spinner Mason Crane’s experience playing in Sydney may prove the clincher to earn him a debut as England try to salvage their Ashes series with a win over Australia in Thursday’s final Test.

Trailing 3-0 and the Ashes lost, England are considering a possible team change for the fifth Sydney Test with Moeen Ali’s place under threat and Crane pushing for his first cap.

Moeen has played 48 Tests and came to Australia as an accomplished all-rounder but he has under-performed, taking only three wickets and averaging 19 with the bat.

The Sydney cricket Ground has a reputation as a turning wicket, enhancing Crane’s chances of playing.

The 20-year-old Hampshire leggie also boasts a five-wicket haul playing at the famous ground for New South Wales last year.

Crane, who was impressing in Sydney club cricket, was called up by NSW and took five wickets in the Sheffield Shield victory against South Australia.

“With the series lost it gives us the opportunity to look at some different people,” England’s Australian coach Trevor Bayliss said this week.

Asked if Crane was ready for Test cricket, Bayliss added: “There’s maybe no time like the present to find out.

“We think he’s a guy that has got the goods and the more he plays at this level the better he will get. You have got to start somewhere.”

England outplayed Australia for large tracts of last week’s fourth Test in Melbourne only for Steve Smith to bat out the entire last day with an unbeaten century for a draw.

Prior to Melbourne, experienced pair Alastair Cook and Stuart Broad were having lean series and under pressure for their spots.

But Cook carried his bat with an unbeaten 244 in the highest Test score at the Melbourne cricket Ground by an overseas player, while Broad bounced back to form with five wickets in the match.

“We are a better team than what we’ve played on this trip and that is a benchmark for our side moving forward,” captain Joe Root said after the Melbourne draw.

“We will try to make sure that we go one better in Sydney and get the win that we want.”

But to break through in Sydney, where they have won twice in the last four Ashes Tests, England must find a way of shackling the freescoring Smith.

Smith has enjoyed a phenomenal series, scoring three centuries – including a Test best 239 in Perth – to amass 604 runs in six innings at an astonishing average of 151.

The Australia skipper, who averages 63.55 in his 60 Tests, is now in outright second place for the highest-ever ICC ranking points behind Don Bradman.

“I’m adapting to each of the bowlers, I’m changing my plans to them and how they’re trying to get me out,” Smith said.

“Hopefully, I can just keep working and keep getting better as well.”

Root said his team had to keep believing they can get Smith out.

“We just have to keep trying every option if he does get in and if it is a good surface to bat on, and keep trusting and believing in what we do,” Root said.

Pace spearhead Mitchell Starc, who missed the Melbourne Test with a bruised heel, is vying with recalled off-spinner Ashton Agar to likely replace Jackson Bird in the final Australia XI.​

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