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India’s tour of South Africa: In quest of conquering the last citadel


Making history is never easy. There will be roadblocks and barriers. You need the heart and the skill to go past them.

And this team, led by Virat Kohli, has the potential to become the first Indian side to win a Test series in South Africa.

In fact, South Africa is the Final Frontier for the Indian team. It is the only major Test playing nation where India has not triumphed in a Test series.

There have been near misses in the past. None more than in the 2006-07 Test series where India, led by Rahul Dravid, won its first ever Test on South African soil ambushing the host at the Wanderers.

S. Sreesanth with sensational swing and off-stump line, sliced through the South African line-up. And V.V.S. Laxman’s ethereal 73 in the second innings settled the issue.

READ: Pujara backs Indian batters to tackle lateral movement in South Africa

But then, India could not hang on to the lead, failing to hold out for a draw despite a helping hand from the rain in the second Test in Durban.

Then, India missed a gilt-edged opportunity to win the Test series going down in the decider in Cape Town on a sluggish pitch that looked more like a sub-continental surface.

The Indian batters struggled against Paul Harris’ left-arm spin and the fiery Dale Steyn struck some big blows.

The pain of that setback would still hurt Dravid, who now travels to South Africa as the India coach. What the batting legend could not accomplish as a player, he could achieve as a coach.

These are difficult times with Omicron, the latest variant of Covid, sweeping through South Africa.

Staying together in a tight bubble can put enormous mental strain on the cricketers but then, on a tough, demanding campaign, it can also bring the players closer with fewer distractions.

All the controversy over the removal of Virat Kohli as ODI captain — Kohli contradicted BCCI’s version of events and the manner the decision was communicated to him — ahead of the tour is not good news.

RELATED: CSA medical officer talks Omicron and preparations  

Here, Dravid could bring his experience and tact to the fore by getting the cricketers to focus on the matches and iron out the differences.

The man who replaced Kohli as ODI captain — Rohit Sharma — will not be available for the three-Test series owing to fitness concerns.

Rohit’s aggression at the top of the order will be missed. He is a wonderful puller and could have relished the bouncy South African pitches.

Banking on experience: The selectors have gone with the experience of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. Pujara’s stonewalling methods at No. 3 could blunt the South African pace attack and protect the middle-order, while Rahane’s horizontal bat shots could be his allies on the South African pitches.   –  K. Murali Kumar

But then, in the smooth-stroking K. L. Rahul — elevated as vice-captain in the absence of Rohit — and Mayank Agarwal, India has two capable openers.

A sound start is essential — the kookaburra ball does maximum damage early on and then settles down — and if India can prevent early inroads, it can put up totals that will put pressure on the Proteas.

The selectors have gone with the experience of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. Pujara’s stonewalling methods at No. 3 could blunt the South African pace attack and protect the middle-order.

Rahane’s horizontal bat shots — he is a strong cutter and puller — could be his allies on the South African pitches. This said, both the senior batsmen are short of runs and will be under pressure and scrutiny.

Kohli has not been at his best for quite some time now — is he in the best mental space? The skipper will be keen to bat with typical balance and timing. When Kohli’s bat appears broad and runs flow, India prospers.

The talented Shreyas Iyer could relish the challenges posed by the South African pitches.

And Rishabh Pant’s batting will be the X-factor. He can, with his barrage of shots, so easily take the game away from the opposition.

This has to be India’s best chance to triumph in a Test series in South Africa. The host’s batting has holes in it with too much dependence on skipper Dean Elgar, Quinton de Kock, Aiden Markram and Rassie Van der Dussen, who could emerge the surprise packet of the series.

The magic of AB de Villiers is missing; India would have won its previous series in South Africa but de Villiers’ gems enabled the host to wriggle out of tough situations.

The solidity of Faf du Plessis will not be available too. The South Africans would want Temba Bavuma, the vice-captain, to lift his game.

Bowling strength: Indian bowling will mainly depend on the pace-spin duo of Jasprit Bumrah and Ravichandran Ashwin. There should be assistance for Bumrah in all the three venues for the Test series. Ashwin, who will be the lone spinner in the XI, is bowling to a good rhythm, flighting the ball and turning it with control. And he lends the batting depth.   –  Getty Images

 

Predictably, the Indian pace attack will be keen to have a go at this South African batting line-up. The influential Jasprit Bumrah with his speed, swing and lift will return to the country where his Test journey began. There should be assistance for him in all the three venues for the Test series; Centurion [first Test], Wanderers [second] and Newlands [third].

Mohammed Shami with his compelling seam position and release will move the ball at a telling speed. He can be fast, skiddy and dangerous.

Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Siraj should fight it out for the third seamer’s slot unless the surface is an absolute green-top forcing the team to pick four seamers.

The wily Ishant appears to have lost some of his sting but can surprise you and pose questions with his off-stump line and bounce. Siraj is lively, swings the ball both ways and employs the short ball effectively.

The slip cordon and ’keeper Pant will need to back the pacemen. Dropped catches in the slips has cost India dearly in the past.

With Ravindra Jadeja not available because of injury, R. Ashwin will be the lone spinner in the XI. Ashwin is bowling to a good rhythm, flighting the ball and turning it with control. And he lends the batting depth.

READ: South Africa focused on beating India despite off-field woes  

If batting is South Africa’s weak spot, pace bowling is its strength. In Kagiso Rabada, South Africa has a paceman of velocity, skill and explosive energy.

And Anrich Nortje is arguably the quickest bowler in the world, consistently bowling around 150 kmph. His lifters will test the Indian batters.

Duanne Olivier returns to the South African squad with his Kolpak stint coming to an end. Olivier is quicker than he appears, moves the ball, and has a deceptive short-pitched delivery.

He is expected to play the first Test in Centurion on December 26, ahead of Lungi Ngidi who has gone off the boil somewhat with fitness concerns and indifferent form.

In how the Indian batting copes with South Africa’s high voltage pace attack could well decide the series.

Also keeping the pressure on the Indian batters will be left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj, who bowls with control and craft and has an effective arm ball.

South African cricket might not be in its best health but it still takes some doing to defeat the Proteas in their home soil.

Will India conquer the Final Frontier this time? Dravid’s men can, but the side has to take every chance that comes its way.

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