While 2018 might only be a few days old, South Africa and India is billed as one of the Test series of the year.
The two face-off on Friday at Newlands, Cape Town, in the first of three Test matches, with Virat Kohli‘s number one-ranked side having never won a series on Proteas soil.
The two nations last met in a Test series back in 2015, with the Indians clinching a 3-0 win at home in the four-match spectacle.
Here, we look at three on-the-field battles which could go a long way to deciding the contest.
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AB DE VILLIERS VS VIRAT KOHLI
On paper, you could not get a more mouthwatering batting match-up. Two modern-day greats of the game, with Kohli being the world’s premier batsman and 33-year-old veteran De Villiers reigniting his Test career of late.
Let’s not forget that the duo are great friends, given they previously spent six seasons playing alongside each other for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL.
However, both batters go into this series with differing fortunes. Kohli, who scored 2,818 runs across all international formats last year, has been in the form of his life since 2016 and he has the opportunity to lead his side to a record-breaking 10th consecutive Test series victory.
De Villiers, on the other hand, made his return to the Test set-up against Zimbabwe last month having had an 18-month hiatus from the game’s longest format. He has nothing to prove as such, apart from answering critics who say AB is past his best.
For Kohli, it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to quicker and seaming wickets, with the Proteas attack boasting pace and the ability to move the ball off the deck. Expect the newly-married 29-year-old to come under fire from the hosts, but the batsman would have left no stone unturned in his preparation.
Flourish or fail – whatever Kohli does with the bat will influence the series one way or another.
In fine fettle: Star man and captain Kohli.
KAGISO RABADA VS CHETESHWAR PUJARA
Only Steve Smith (1,305) scored more runs than Pujara (1,140) in Test cricket in 2017 – having played two less innings than the Australian captain.
It was simply a fairytale year for the 29-year-old Indian run machine and his renowned patience, as well as solid defensive technique, will be vital on fast, seaming surfaces against an attack inclusive of ace Rabada.
Despite being only 22, the young South Africa retracts that extra bounce in home conditions, is capable of bowling long spells at full tilt and doesn’t give you a moment’s peace as a visiting batsman.
For sure, it is set to be a fine contest at the top of the order with Pujara being very much the man India will rely on, other than Kohli, to score big and provide a solid foundation.
It will also be important for the Rajkot-born star to leave well and pick when and when not to drive and flash hard outside off-stump.
Rabada has 105 wickets from 23 matches in Tests.
QUINTON DE KOCK VS HARDIK PANDYA
The South African wicket-keeper batsman will be tasked with chipping in with his fair share of runs down the order while India’s all-rounder, Hardik Pandya, brings welcome balance to the side.
Indeed, it’s that balance which is crucial to Kohli’s men. Pandya is more than capable with both bat and ball, and his ability to bend his back and bowl short stuff on quick pitches will work in the tourists’ favour.
While you wouldn’t say runs from either De Kock or Pandya would decide the series, both should play their part and contributions lower down should be telling.
It should also be noted that there is a chance Rohit Sharma could play in place of the 24-year-old Indian star.
Rising star of Indian cricket: Pandya.