The build-up to the India v South Africa series started late last year and the beginning of this year sees the wait finally end. Two of the finest teams in red ball cricket are expected to leave everything out on the field as they target the bragging rights to be called the best team in the world.
India are currently ranked No1 but haven’t tasted success in major nations outside Asia and the three-Test series will show if Virat Kohli’s team can truly claim to be the best in the world. The Proteas are ranked No2 in the world and have consistently been rated one of the top teams in the world over the years. With Test veterans AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel wearing white clothing again, the hosts are brimming with class and experience.
With both teams boasting world-class players, we assess the strengths and weaknesses of both teams on four parameters.
South Africa’s performance in India is considerably better than that of the Indians in the Rainbow Nation. The Indians have won two and lost eight Tests in South Africa, while the Proteas have a respectable record of five wins and eight defeats in India. That means India are yet to master the South African conditions.
However, the two Indian wins (Jo’burg 2006 and Durban 2010) came on wickets that had extra ‘juice’ in it so that should give the visitors confidence that they can make inroads if conditions are loaded in the bowlers’ favour.
Verdict: Advantage South Africa.
India enjoyed a stupendous 2017 across formats. They won seven Tests and lost just one. They reached the ODI Champions Trophy final and remained unbeaten in bilateral series throughout the year, apart from the one-off T20 against the Windies.
The South Africans had an up and down year. They lost the ODI, T20 and Test series in England. In fact, they were crushed 3-1 in Tests in England, the absence of AB and Dale Steyn felt clearly.
Verdict: Advantage India.
South Africa have the more experienced batting line-up, on paper. Both Hashim Amla and AB have scored more than 8,000 runs, while Kohli is the only Indian with more than 5,000. Add Faf du Plessis (45 Tests) and Dean Elgar (42) to the mix and the Proteas have some wise heads to rely on.
However, De Villiers has just returned to the Test arena after a nearly two-year break while the Indian batting line-up of Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara (54 Tests, pictured)), Murali Vijay (53) and Ajinkya Rahane (43) has been through the grind together, more or less, for a few seasons.
Also, the records of Indian batsmen in South Africa is not too bad even though they haven’t played a lot there. Kohli has a century and a fifty in four innings, Rahane two fifties in four innings, Pujara a century and a fifty in seven innings.
If fully fit, the South African attack can claim to be the most lethal in the world, as India batsman Rohit Sharma himself admitted.
While India have some excellent quicks in Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, they don’t even come close to the records of Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander. Young quick Kagiso Rabada takes it to a new level with his pace and swing.
Unless the wickets misbehave and spinners come into play in the second innings, the South African attack looks capable of inflicting more damage on the Indian line-up than the other way round.
Verdict: Advantage South Africa.
India opener Shikhar Dhawan has been declared fit and available for the first Test against South Africa starting on Friday at the Newlands in Cape Town. However, Ravindra Jadeja’s availability for the Test has been thrown into question with the all-rounder down with a viral flu for the past two days.
Dhawan had initially been ruled out of the first Test due at an injury but his return to fitness presents a conundrum for Virat Kohli and the Indian team management with three fit and in-form openers to choose from.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) confirmed Dhawan’s return and Jadeja’s illness through a press release on Wednesday.
“India opener Shikhar Dhawan is fit and is available for selection for the first Test. Dhawan had suffered a minor ankle injury before the team’s departure to South Africa,” the release said.
“Jadeja has been suffering from viral illness for the past two days. The BCCI Medical Team has been monitoring him and is also in touch with the local medical team in Cape Town.
“The BCCI Medical Team in consultation with the local medical team has decided that Jadeja will be taken to a hospital for treatment and expects him to fully recover in the next 48 hrs. A decision on his availability for selection for the opening Test against South Africa will be taken on the morning of the match i.e. 5th January 2018,” it added.
Kohli is expected to play only one specialist spinner in the playing XI on South African conditions. Hence, Ravichandran Ashwin is expected to operate as India’s lone-spinner if Jadeja is ruled out on Friday.
India play three Tests, six ODIs and three T20Is in a long and gruelling tour of the African nation to kick-start their 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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.