The Final Frontier, that’s what the tour of South Africa is to the Indian cricket team.
It’s the only country where India has not won a Test series. In many respects, the tour, for which the squad was announced on Wednesday, gives India a gilt-edged opportunity to make history.
Coach Rahul Dravid and his men could tick a big box for Indian cricket in what might be a momentous tour.
Crucially, Rohit Sharma, known for his cricketing nous, has been elevated as the vice-captain, replacing Ajinkya Rahane.
The Test squad, led by Virat Kohli, does not carry surprises. The big question ahead of the selection was would Rahane, lacking runs, retain his place?
The selectors have chosen to be conservative banking on Rahane’s experience in the middle-order to deliver the goods.
Rahane can execute horizontal bat shots on the bouncy South African pitches and did conjure a match-winning knock at the Wanderers in India’s last tour of the country; factors that could have weighed in the Mumbaikar’s favour.
Another warhorse, Cheteshwar Pujara, an influential top-order batsman in crucial away campaigns, finds a place.
Rohit Sharma, K.L. Rahul and Mayank Agarwal are the openers [the injured Shubhman Gill misses out], and Shreyas Iyer and Hanuma Vihari, picked for his temperament in tough situations, are the additional middle-order batsmen.
Given that Ravindra Jadeja could not make the squad owing to fitness concerns, off-spinning ace R. Ashwin is slated to play all three Tests.
Left-arm spinner Axar Patel is injured but Jayant Yadav’s inclusion as the second spinner – he too sends down off-spin – is surprising considering the selectors could have picked a wrist spinner for variety, providing a lifeline to someone like Kuldeep Yadav.
The three Tests will be played at Centurion, Wanderers and Newlands and all three venues have pitches that offer bounce and seam movement.
India has picked a potent pace attack spearheaded by Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami that will probe the South African batsmen.
Rishabh Pant, with his X-factor, will be the first choice ‘keeper on foreign tours.
The squad: Virat Kohli (captain), Rohit Sharma (vice-captain), K.L. Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant, Wriddhiman Saha, R. Ashwin, Jayant Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj.
Standbyes: Navdeep Saini, Saurabh Kumar. Deepak Chahar, Arzan Nagwaswalle.