A record 11th home series win on the bounce is on offer for India as the hosts get ready to take on South Africa in the second and penultimate Test at Pune beginning on Thursday.
Virat Kohli’s men will be desperate to clinch the three-match series which they currently lead by 1-0 after a comprehensive 203-run victory in the first Test at Visakhapatnam.
The visitors, however, will not wither away easily as they seek to garner only their first Test win since January when they beat Pakistan by nine wickets at Cape Town.
India look to make amends for 2017 Pune Test debacle
It is easy to see why India’s record at home can be daunting for any visiting side with the hosts’ last 30 clashes on home soil yielding a staggering 24 wins and five draws. The sole loss, which remains an aberration, came at Pune two years ago with Steve Smith’s individual brilliance pushing Australia to a remarkable triumph at the venue.
That remains the only home blip in Kohli’s Test captaincy so far with the superstar batsman already establishing himself as the most successful skipper the country has seen in the format. It remains the only Test to have been hosted at the Pune ground and as such, Kohli and India will be looking to set the record straight when they take the field against the Proteas.
All eyes, however, will be on what kind of pitch the Pune curator throws up with the 2017 Test turning out to be a minefield for spinners. India won’t really mind an encore given their undisputed supremacy in the spin department. They have two of the best Test spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – in the business currently in their arsenal while a third potent option in the form of Kuldeep Yadav waits in the wings.
Visitors mull spin or pace dilemma
While India have absolutely no worries in the spin department, South Africa do not have it so easy despite the presence of the highly talented Keshav Maharaj in their ranks. The visitors, in fact, went in with a three-man spin attack in the opening Test at Vizag compared to India’s two and they will now be mulling over whether to retain that same composition.
One of the three slower bowlers picked by South Africa – off-spinner Dane Piedt – had a Test to forget with the ball despite his battling half-century in the second innings. Making his first Test appearance in over three years, Piedt conceded more than 100 runs in each of the two innings while picking up just the solitary wicket in the match.
The Proteas’ strength, traditionally, has been their pace attack and they do have the promising Lungi Ngidi on standby to bolster their bowling ranks. However, with Pune’s only previous Test resulting in a bloodbath for spinners, skipper Faf du Plessis will most definitely be in two minds over including the 23-year-old pacer.
Kohli aims to end barren 2019 spell
While Kohli did have a monstrous 2018 in the Test arena with memorable tons in the overseas tours of South Africa, England and Australia, his current year showings have been extremely ordinary by his high standards.
The likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Hanuma Vihari have all scored big hundreds at some point in 2019 with Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal joining in on the fun in the Vizag Test. Kohli’s best, however, after a total of seven innings has been an unbeaten 76 in the recent tour of West Indies.
The India man has seen his No1 Test ranking usurped by Steve Smith in recent times with the Australian stretching his lead at the top to a whopping 38 rating points in the latest update released by the ICC.
The fierce competitor in Kohli will not doubt be itching to get back among the tons and the India captain will be eyeing a 26th century in the format as he seeks to reestablish his Test credentials.
India: Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma.
South Africa: Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Theunis de Bruyn, Faf du Plessis (c), Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Senuran Muthuswamy, Keshav Maharaj, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi/Dane Piedt.
The international recalls handed to Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad have not gone to plan so far for Pakistan with both batmen failing miserably in the two T20I losses to Sri Lanka in Lahore.
Head coach/chief selector Misbah-ul-Haq has been at pains to justify their inclusion and has pointed to a lack of options on the domestic circuit as one of the primary reasons for the duo’s comeback.
As the hosts get ready to take on Sri Lanka in a dead-rubber clash in Lahore on Wednesday, we look at three batsmen Misbah can turn to instead of Akmal and Shehzad.
The 27-year-old wicketkeeper batsman can definitely bat as shown by his two excellent ODI tons against Australia in the UAE earlier this year. Despite those displays, Rizwan inexplicably found himself out of favour for the 2019 World Cup squad.
His direct competition in the team being skipper Sarfraz Ahmed has not helped matters for the Lahore Qalandars man but he does possess the ability to play as purely a specialist batsman.
With Sarfraz’s own batting struggles showing no signs of ending, Rizwan can be the perfect cover while also doubling up as a top-order batsman.
The veteran all-rounder was one of the key components in Pakistan’s rise to the top of the T20I rankings but has surprisingly found himself out of the reckoning for the ongoing series.
Pakistan’s loss has been Guyana Amazon Warriors’ gain with the 37-year-old leading the team’s unbeaten campaign in the Caribbean Premier League with emphatic style.
The right-hander has been averaging nearly 79 with the bat in the tournament and wrote himself into the record books on Sunday by becoming only the fourth batsman in history to register 9,000 T20 runs.
He has already stated his desire to participate in the T20 World Cup in Australia next year and Misbah would be foolish to not lean on his experience and prowess.
The 31-year-old opening batsman announced himself to international cricket in style earlier this year by slamming a superb 112 on his ODI debut against Australia. The Lahore-born batsman was in fine flow in the recent ODI series against Sri Lanka as well with his 67-ball 74 helping the hosts chase down a target of 298 runs with considerable ease.
Yet, he was surprisingly dropped for the T20I series to follow with Misbah opting to call back Akmal and Shehzad instead. His free-flowing game is tailor-made for the shortest format and Pakistan would be served well by blooding him into the set-up for the T20 World Cup.
Pakistan handed recalls to Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad for the clashes against the Lankans but both the batsmen have flopped in the two defeats in Lahore which have resulted in a third consecutive T20I series loss for the No1 ranked Men in Green.
Shehzad has been able to muster just 17 runs in his two innings so far, Akmal has been even worse with two consecutive golden ducks to his name. While the two have failed to deliver the required results on their comebacks, the Pakistan head coach has bemoaned the lack of other batsmen putting their hands up in the country’s domestic T20 circuit.
“Both these players have performed well wherever they’ve played in the last one year. Ahmed’s performance in Pakistan Super League was remarkable enough for a chance, while Umar, whichever format he played, was among the good ones,” Misbah was quoted as saying by ESPNcricinfo after his side’s 35-run loss on Monday.
“It’s unfortunate that in our circuit, there is no other batsman in T20s who had performed better than them. Players who have performed in domestic surely deserve a chance, and that’s why we offered them (a comeback).”
Many have questioned Misbah’s decision to ring in the changes for a squad which has already established itself as the top T20I outfit in the world, but the former skipper remains convinced that experimentation is the way forward in the run up to next year’s T20 World Cup in Australia.
“There are a lot of reasons for this experimentation. Yes, we are the No1 team in the world but mostly our strength has been standing on Babar Azam scoring runs and with him not scoring in two games, we are exposed badly,” Misbah explained.
“We need to find out six or more match-winners, we need to have more dependable batsmen, we need powerhouses in the top and middle, and in bowling we need to take wickets upfront and in the death overs and we need to have good finishers.
“But we failed overall, we are struggling in every department, and it’s a big eye-opener for us. We didn’t play to our strengths and couldn’t deliver. We are looking for more batsmen rather than just relying on one or two.”
Pakistan entered 2019 on the back of 11 straight series wins in the 20-over format but Sarfraz Ahmed and his men have come unstuck with just one victory to show for in the current year, while the losses’ column has swelled to five.
The hosts have been comprehensively outplayed in both T20Is so far by a relatively inexperienced Sri Lanka squad missing key names such as skipper Lasith Malinga, Kusal Perera and Kusal Mendis.
In their absence, unheralded names such as Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Shehan Jayasuriya and the recalled Danushka Gunathilaka have set the stage on fire with some explosive displays.
On Monday, it was Rajapaksa’s moment to turn hero with the left-hander smashing his way to 48-ball 77 that helped the visitors rack up a daunting 182-6 after batting first. That splendid effort was backed up by an electric display with the ball by leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga who claimed three top-order wickets in the space of four deliveries to derail Pakistan’s chase.
Praising the youngsters for playing fearless cricket on the big stage, stand-in skipper Dasun Shanaka has called on the Sri Lankan selectors to give them more chances after the completion of the Pakistan tour.
“We played quality cricket and that’s why we won,” Shanaka stated after Monday’s win.
“Rajapaksa played a masterclass innings. These youngsters should get a good chance after the series and I am sure selectors will look at it.”
While the visitors are currently bouncing with confidence, the wounded hosts will hope to provide the home fans in Lahore with a consolation win when the two sides take the field for the final T02I on Wednesday.