India won almost everything in 2017 (barring that Champions Trophy final of course). If Virat Kohli had set a list of To-Dos at the beginning of the year, then he would have checked all the boxes on that list as the year draws to a close. The wins and the manner in which the team played throughout a busy year is something Kohli can be proud of. His team gave stellar performances in all departments of the game; their overall fitness is top notch, and Kohli has proved himself as a capable leader.
Kohli recorded the most number of international cricket centuries in a year by a captain
Despite their success, the jury is still out on India's ability to win Test matches in conditions alien to them. Many attribute India's rise to the Top of Test ranking in 2017 to playing mostly at home and touring countries that provide pitches similar to home, namely, the West Indies and Sri Lanka.
Kohli wants to prove his team can win away from home. It was apparent in almost all his press interactions during the series against Sri Lanka at home when all he would talk about is preparing for upcoming tours in 2018.
India's quest to become a better touring team begins in 2018 with a country that has been the hardest place to tour for teams from the subcontinent. Since their return to international cricket in 1992, South Africa has consistently produced quality pace bowling attacks with three, at times four top quality fast bowlers that have tested the technique and patience of batsmen from the subcontinent.
Indian batsmen have the lowest overall average in South Africa
If you run the numbers, among countries that have a reputation for helping fast bowlers, the overall average and strike rate for fast bowlers, from both home and away teams, has been the best in South Africa since 1992.
If you flip that stat around and check which country has been the hardest to tour for Indian batsmen since 1992, it's South Africa again. Indian batsmen have the lowest overall average in South Africa.
Their struggles notwithstanding, India have tasted some success in South Africa, with Test wins during the 2006/07 and 2010/11 tours, courtesy some outstanding individual performances. Even on the last trip in 2013/14, on pitches that weren't as quick as you'd expect in South Africa, India came close to winning a Test.
India starts this tour with probably the most promising pace attack they have ever had in an overseas test series. The trouble is, barring Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami, none of them has played a Test match in South Africa before and without any practice match before the start of the first Test, may find it difficult to adjust to the length they need to bowl on South African pitches.
Shami and Sharma haven’t played a test match in South Africa before
South African pitches will assist the Indian fast bowlers, but they need to bowl a fuller length than what they would bowl in India to get the most out the tracks. They will be up against a South African pace attack that has more experience, better variety and far better knowledge of the conditions. Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada are as good as they come and if Dale Steyn can bowl anywhere near his best after his comeback, then this attack, in friendly conditions, may just be too hot to handle for the Indian batsmen. As is usually the case in this part of the world, the team that performs better in fast bowling department will have the best chance of winning the series.
The hosts will be eager to avenge their 3-nil loss in India earlier this year on pitches that provided a lot of assistance to Indian spinners. The last time South Africa lost a Test series in India on similar dust bowls was in 1996 when a visibly angry Hansie Cronje complained about the facilities and pitch conditions in the 3rd Test at Kanpur before leaving India. When India toured South Africa later that year, they were greeted with a spiced up Durban pitch on which they could score an aggregate of 166 runs across two innings against Alan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Lance Klusener and Brian McMillan.
India is set to face the Steyn test again
South Africa will be hoping to give their Indian friends a similar welcome again this time even though there is uncertainty over the state of the Newlands pitch where they will play the first Test. A severe drought over the last one year means the groundsman may not be able to give South African fast bowlers as much assistance as they would have liked and therein lies India's best chance of going 1-nil up in the series and put the hosts under pressure. A series win in South Africa for this young Indian side could be a dream come true, but as a realistic target even if they win one Test on the tour, it will give this team a real boost for the rest of their overseas season.