Three-Test series, six-ODI series and three-T20I series
January 5 to February 24, 2018
The main picture
The much-awaited year of overseas tours for the India cricket team is upon us. For more than two years (starting November 2015), India have overwhelmed pretty much every opposition, largely in home conditions. But despite the one-sided series scorelines (particularly in Test cricket) and the Virat Kohli-led group making and breaking records, India cannot be deemed to have not gained much. A dynamic all-rounder has been unearthed and pretty much every player part of the setup has grown in stature. Therefore, India are quite well-placed to taste overseas success, starting with the forthcoming tour of South Africa.
This series against the Proteas is unique from India’s perspective. Five of the six previous Indian sides to tour this country have struggled, India only ever winning just two Tests, five ODIs and three Twenty20 Internationals. This side, however, will start each series on an equal footing and have the players to consider themselves capable of winning their maiden Test and ODI series in South Africa. On the 2010 tour, the MS Dhoni-led team went really close to winning the Test and ODI series, only to be denied at each of the final hurdles.
While India embark on a year in which they go on three major overseas tours, South Africa host arguably the two most formidable Test sides (the other being Australia) in their home season and will have their own credentials tested. For starters, they are not the same side from a couple of years ago.
Dale Steyn has been beset by a fracture of the coracoid process in his right shoulder and a recurrence of the same injury in November 2016, with his last Test match coming 13 months ago. His planned return to international cricket (in the one-off, four-day Test against Zimbabwe) was hampered by a viral infection. So, he will go into the first Test having not played any first-class cricket for a long time. Thanks to South Africa’s bowling riches, Steyn has not exactly been missed, but hard not to wonder if he is the same bowler who struck fear in batting line-ups and was a reliable wicket-taker. On the plus side, Steyn can be eased back into action thanks to the presence of Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and, not to forget, Vernon Philander.
In the batting department, South Africa are blessed with the solid, dogged and reliable Dean Elgar and Hashim Alma in the top order, which also has the ever-maturing Aiden Markram (an opener). AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis beef up a middle order with two other exciting batsmen, Temba Bavuma and wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock. Like Steyn, de Villiers is another stalwart who has just returned to Test cricket after a 23-month exile. Either way you look, India’s hosts are formidable.
As aforementioned, India, for the first time, have the players who can match their South African counterparts or even better them. Virat Kohli has an embarrassment of riches in the bowling department, in particular, with as many as five genuine fast bowlers (Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, and Jasprit Bumrah) in the touring party. All those bowlers are at the peak of their powers and genuine wicket-takers. Each one of them is unique and will render variety to the pace attack.
The most talked about subject is the composition of the Indian Test team and how much of a role will Hardik Pandya play. Will India look at him as a genuine No. 6 who can lend balance to the team with his hit-the-deck bowling, even if he has bowled only 32 overs in an embryonic three-Test career and is raw? If India choose to be conservative, they obviously can integrate Rohit Sharma in the playing XI and play four bowlers (three seamers and one spinner).
India are likely to opt for a right-left opening combination, with Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan getting the nod ahead of Lokesh Rahul, who has done no wrong and yet goes into every Test match with uncertainty hanging over his spot. Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane form a formidable trio at Nos. 3, 4 and 5 respectively in India’s Test batting line-up. The word from Cape Town is that Shikhar Dhawan is carrying an ankle injury and is a doubt for the first Test.
The Test series is followed by a strange length of six-match ODI series. (The last time a six-match ODI series was played was between New Zealand Pakistan in 2011.) The MSK Prasad-led selection committee has named a strong 17-man Indian squad for that ODI series, with Mohammed Shami making a comeback into the ODI squad for the first time since being named in the same for the series against Australia in September-October.
Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, after playing a starring role in India’s ODI series wins over Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka with their wrist-spin, will showcase their bowling in overseas (and potentially non-helpful) conditions for the first time as part of the national side. We will get to see if they can be as effective as they have been back home and this is one of the mouthwatering aspects of the second leg of India’s tour of the rainbow nation.
India’s last ODI series win against South Africa came way back in 2009, when an MS Dhoni-led team beat South Africa 2-1 in a three-match series at home. And the Proteas were the second-last team to inflict a series defeat on India in any format, with an AB de Villiers-led side winning the five-ODI series in India in 2015 by 2-3. Since then, the Men in Blue have bridged the gap between themselves and the ever-formidable South African ODI side, though only winning an ODI series against the Proteas will prove if they actually have.
A typical, three-match T20I series rounds up India’s near-two-month-long tour. While this Indian team take every match and series seriously, they might go a little easy on this T20 International series against the Proteas, considering that it comes at the fag end of a long tour. The next World Twenty20 tournament is also only in 2020, so this series has very little riding on it.
In the pre-departure press conference, Ravi Shastri said that India’s performances in overseas tours will define them. “The conditions will be testing [overseas], but this one-and-a-half years will define this Indian cricket team,” said the Indian coach. While that’s an exaggerated comment, especially when you consider India aren’t lacking in identity and enjoyed an overwhelmingly successful 2017, this Virat Kohli-led team have the personnel and the experience of having toured South Africa with pretty much the same group in 2013 to break the duck of having never won a Test or ODI series here before. Essentially, Shastri probably meant that winning outside the sub-continent was this all-conquering Indian team’s next challenge. And, in my opinion, this group will rise up to the challenge.