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India's tour of South Africa: some talking points

India's tour of South Africa: some talking points

In the extended home season stretching from 2015, India banked mostly on the spin of Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, and tireless run-accumulation by Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara to dismantle the opposition. The formula that brought them 17 wins (6 innings victories) and just one loss in 24 Tests since the end of 2015.

With a stellar 2017 behind them, the Indian team have landed in South Africa, keen to emulate their home successes abroad. With the historical baggage of being poor travelers on their backs, and a fully-fit fiery Protea attack awaiting them, Virat Kohli’s men know that this tour (and the ones to England and Australia later) will be the making or undoing of their side.

We cover some talking points in a preview of the Indian side for the all-important three-match battle between the top two ranked Test sides.

The Openers

India’s go-to opener is Murali Vijay, one of their more consistent batsmen during their last overseas tours. On the 2014 tour to South Africa he blunted the new ball excellently, giving respect to the bounce and leaving liberally outside off. He has three first class tons in his last three games, and his monk-like approach will be key to Indian batting success.

 Vijay has been  one of the most consistent batsmen during India’s last overseas tours

Vijay has been one of the most consistent batsmen during India’s last overseas tours

Shikhar Dhawan was ruled out of the opening game with a twisted ankle. Fortunately, India have a more than solid backup option in KL Rahul, who had struck seven consecutive fifties in the series against Australia in 2017. With his classical playing style and firm technique, Rahul will be equipped to handle the fast, seaming tracks of South Africa.

The Run Hoarders

A slump on foreign shores, followed by an omission from the team, saw Cheteshwar Pujara dropped from the side, but he still turned it all around, and how. Averaging 61.75 in his last 34 innings over two years, he displayed all the colours of batting while donning a cloak of pure Test match batsmanship. Be it a declaration ton in Indore against New Zealand, a stoic 92 from the trenches in Bengaluru when Australia were on top, or a mammoth 525-ball double century in Ranchi, he always found a way. His away average of 38.52 is something he will be itching to rectify, as he hopes to become India’s newest Wall in the faces of Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel.

 Cheteshwar Pujara averages 61.75 in his last 34 innings

Cheteshwar Pujara averages 61.75 in his last 34 innings

The man who will follow him at number four seems to be on a scarcely believable run of scoring, with now the second best conversion rate of 50s to 100s after Don Bradman. Virat Kohli has scored at 75 runs per dismissal and smashed six double centuries in the past two years. With his penchant to be in the face of the opposition, his stature as his team’s star player, and his importance to the batting at that crucial number four spot, South Africa are sure to attack him. Will he be able to fight his tendency to poke outside off early on in his innings? With his red-hot form and the prowess and pace of the Protea bowlers, this vital battle promises to be a delectable one.

The Lower Middle Order Problem

Ajinkya Rahane stood tall and shining amongst the ruins of India’s batting on their England tour in 2014, and followed up with magnificent contributions in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. With an away average of 53.44, he is virtually undroppable from the side, even after his tepid run of form in a home season where while his compatriots plundered runs, he returned with a 34.62 average in 2017. The team management still backs him, and a player with his composure and technical aptitude is only one good match away from riding into form. Perhaps the foreign air will agree with him and evoke memories of his feats abroad. His fate could be the deciding factor in India’s success on this tour.

 Rahane averages 53.44 in overseas

Rahane averages 53.44 in overseas

Rohit Sharma has the management’s and captain’s support at number six if India do go in with four bowlers. He scored two fifties and a ton in declaration innings against Sri Lanka, but his Test record overseas, particularly an inability to handle lateral movement, and a tendency to throw starts away, will be a worrying factor for India. If the top order does their job of blunting the ball and tiring the bowlers well, Rohit at 6 could be a force to reckon with, because pace and bounce have never been his foes.

An All-Rounder and a Spinner

Competing with Rohit will be Hardik Pandya, whose fast-tracked trajectory in the Test side seems to have been aimed at honing a medium-pace all-rounder for away tours. He showed a temperate side to his now famous slam-bang batting in a rearguard 79 against Australia A in September 2016, which impressed Rahul Dravid. His bowling is nowhere near the consistency required for a main Test bowler, but he has pace and a knack of conjuring a wicket or two.

In 2014, India were denied a win in Johannesburg by their inability to take 20 wickets, and thus, Kohli might opt for five bowlers. If he can keep his areas tight, Pandya might be a more than handy fourth seamer on South Africa’s bouncy pitches.

 Pandya can be more than a handy fourth seamer on African pitches

Pandya can be more than a handy fourth seamer on African pitches

Given the conditions, India are most likely to go in with three pacers, making it a shootout between India’s best two bowlers for the lone spinner’s spot. Statistically, Jadeja is the more successful of the two in South Africa, but Ashwin has gone to county cricket and practiced extricating wickets in unhelpful conditions. He has better trained his variations in trajectory that are essential on pitches that don’t turn. He is also practicing leg breaks, which might, on one hand, paint him as an intelligent, improvising cricketer, but might also betray a lack of faith in his stock ball. Ashwin’s better defensive batting might also hand him an edge in a team looking to pick just five specialist batsmen.

Pace: A New Dawn

Amidst the huge totals and spin successes, perhaps India’s greatest takeaway from their home season was the construction of an effective and dependable pace battery. Bhuvneshwar Kumar added new dimensions to his bowling by yanking up his pace to the mid-130s while keeping his gorgeous seam and bidirectional swing intact. Umesh Yadav outbowled the Australian tourists to deliver crucial breakthroughs, and played a long home season mixing steadfast fire with long-sought consistency. Mohammed Shami was penetrative as usual, a deadly combination of swing, reverse and pace. Ishant Sharma had 20 wickets at an average of 12.8 in the Ranji Trophy, and scalped 8 wickets in two games versus Sri Lanka on uncooperative pitches.

India as tourists are the most lethal when the pitch brings their pacers into play, be it Lord’s 2014 or Durban 2011. With Ishant’s efficacy on bouncy surfaces, Bhuvneshwar’s swing, Umesh’s pace and Shami’s nippy reverse, this is India’s best, most varied, and most settled bowling team ever. Given even slight assistance from the conditions, they could prove more than a handful for the host batsmen.