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India's best chance in South Africa

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Virat_Kohli_India_South_Africa_Test_cricketOnly two Test victories out of 17 encounters across six tours — South African conditions have always been a nemesis for any touring Indian Test side. There has been a plenty of pace, bounce and sideways movement both in the air and off the pitch for the fast bowlers. On most occasions, India’s batting has failed to cope with it. Hence their dismal record.

However, prior to their next tour of the Rainbow Nation, which starts in Cape Town from January 5 with a three-Test series, we can afford to be a little more optimistic about the chances of Virat Kohli and Co.

Ranked No. 1 in the world, the Indian Test team is currently in the middle of a sublime run. They have won their last nine Test series back to back. In fact, following the 0-2 defeat in the tour of Australia in 2014/15, India have lost only two Tests out of 31 games, which shows their dominance in red-ball cricket. Critics argue that eight out of those nine series triumphs have been achieved in the sub-continent, but one has to agree that this dominating show has injected a lot of positivity into this team.

Yes, South Africa will be a different game altogether, but with form and confidence on their side, this time the Indians have a realistic chance of turning the tables.

 

The most important aspect of this Indian Test side is its bench strength. Whether it's the opening slot, middle-order or the bowling attack —  there is class and depth of resources in all the departments.

 

With the upcoming overseas tours in mind, during the recently concluded series against Sri Lanka, the Indian team management tried out a lot of options at different positions. Interestingly, senior members of the team, including the captain, had shown no hesitation to openly talk about it in recent media interactions.

They have tried to develop a large pool of players who can be picked and thrown into the deep end when batting at any spot. The Indian team, currently, has Test-ready players queuing up for almost every spot in the first eleven. Going into South Africa, this will be their greatest strength.

The batting department looks quite settled. For starters, they have three in-form openers, each as good as the other. Surviving the new ball has always been India’s bugbear overseas. To perform this thankless job, India will have Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul and Murali Vijay — all proven performers with runs behind them.

In fact, Vijay’s form against Sri Lanka has been a sigh of relief. India need his solidity at the top. In India’s last overseas tour cycle (South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia) Vijay was the only Indian batsman barring Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, who had a 40 plus average. In all probability, in Cape Town, the Chennai boy will be India’s first-choice opener.

In the middle-order, they have Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli — both in sublime touch. At 5, Ajinkya Rahane’s form is a concern, but the team management has a ready replacement in Rohit Sharma, who got runs in the last two Tests against Sri Lanka, including a ton in his comeback Test in Nagpur.

In Hardik Pandya, India have found the ideal all-rounder for overseas, seaming conditions. He will be a handy, hit-the-deck bowler who can chip in with 12-15 overs in the day. With bat, he is capable of scoring some important runs down the order.

For Wriddhiman Saha, this series will be his first major challenge outside the subcontinent as a frontline keeper-batsman. Parthiv Patel is also in the squad as a backup.

Finally, when it comes to the bowling attack, India have no shortage of options.

 

Since the last home season, the performance of the fast bowlers has been the biggest positive in Indian cricket. Whether it is Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Ishant Sharma; they have always kept some control over the opponents and managed to get the breakthroughs. For the past few seasons, India have mostly played Test cricket in sub-continental conditions, where pacers do not get much sideways movement or bounce. And yet they succeeded.

 

With Pandya in the squad, India should ideally go ahead with a four-pace attack. I am sure the fast bowlers will be licking their lips, waiting to bowl on those wickets.

Spin might not play a vital role in South Africa but in Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, India have quality options in their ranks.

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Interestingly, the Indian think-tank has opted out of the only warm-up fixture scheduled ahead of the first Test. Instead, to acclimatize, they will have extensive practice sessions. Furthermore, young pacers from the domestic circuit - Mohammed Siraj, Avesh Khan, Navdeep Saini and Basil Thampi - will travel with the team to provide the batting unit some vital practice ahead of the Test series.

Going up against South Africa without any match practice may not seem like ideal preparation before one of the toughest tours in the cricketing world, but the point of this team is that they do not believe in conventional thinking.

 

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Sandipan Banerjee is a freelance cricket journalist by profession and admirer of this great sport b...

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