Confident India must make bat, ball do the talking

Match details

Newlands, Cape Town
January 5 to 9; 14:00 IST
Sony Ten 1 HD, Ten 1 (English), Sony Ten 3 HD, Ten 3 (Hindi)

The main picture

India tour of South Africa 2018 is fascinating in a lot of ways. For the first time as a permanent Test captain, Virat Kohli will be leading India in a Test match outside the sub-continent. In the two Tests he captained India before permanently taking over the Test captaincy from MS Dhoni in June 2015, India lost one in dramatic fashion and drew the other (both during the tour of Australia 2014). Despite having not played a Test outside the sub-continent, this Indian team are confident of creating history by winning a Test series on the South African soil. And the confidence exuded by the players and the coach is rubbing off on their ardent fans, again, despite having not witnessed this Indian team win outside the sub-continent.

Secondly, not much is different about this Indian team and the teams who toured Australia, England, New Zealand, and South Africa at least since the start of this century. India went on overseas tours with a terrific batting line-up (courtesy the Fab Four) and quality swing bowlers, and didn’t we say they were capable of winning Test series in the countries aforementioned? India managed to win Test matches in Indian-like (Adelaide 2004) and proper foreign conditions (Johannesburg 2006, Trent Bridge 2007, Durban 2010, and Lord’s 2014). (India won a Test series too, in England, in 2007, 21 years after they had last won in this country.)

The discernible differences in this Indian side are the confidence in the camp (previous Indian sides were meek and didn’t always fancy themselves), variety in the bowling attack and the flexibility provided by the presence of an all-rounder. Of course, this side is rich in experience too, with 13 of the 17 players named in the squad having been on the 2013 tour of South Africa. Yet, if India don’t play to potential and commit mistakes, their attempt to win a Test series will only go in vain.

India opted against playing a practice match upon arriving in the country and have been hard at work in the nets. We will have to see how the team management’s decision to not play a practice match works out. The visitors were apparently unhappy with the practice pitch provided to them. “The Indian team management told me that they want a green wicket, so we are trying to prepare that,” said the groundsman at the Western Province Cricket Club (WPCC).

For the first time in a long time, India will be playing against a team who at least start on an equal footing with them. So, although a no-brainer, India cannot concede much ground with the bat or with the ball. Their slip catching, in particular, has to be spot on and if the home Test series against Sri Lanka is anything to go by, that aspect remains a concern.

Virat Kohli remains the backbone of a batting line-up which boasts the reliable Murali Vijay, the solid Cheteshwar Pujara and the flamboyant Ajinkya Rahane. If India are to win this Test series, their captain needs to score big runs, while the lower order has to contribute with the bat too. The bowling attack is likely to comprise three genuine fast bowlers and one spinner unless India are really bold and pick Hardik Pandya as their No. 6. In which case, they can only go in with five specialist batsmen.

South Africa are a formidable, well-balanced team who will be difficult to beat in home conditions. They have a lethal bowling attack, even minus Dale Steyn, and the batting line-up has been bolstered by the return of AB de Villiers. The one possible concern for the home team is they haven’t played an equally strong opposition in the lead-up to this Test series, sweeping aside Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. The four-day Test match against Zimbabwe, in particular, didn’t help the Proteas test themselves ahead of an important series against the No. 1-ranked Test team.

The picturesque Newlands in Cape Town hosts the first Test of this three-Test series. And statistically speaking, this venue has tended to produce one-sided results. The Cape Town pitch is one which aids fast bowlers at the start, becomes good to bat on on days two and three and the spinners usually come into the picture on days four and five. Newlands curator has spoken about leaving a tinge of grass on the pitch to facilitate pace and bounce, though preparing the pitch has been hindered a touch by the prevalent drought in this region. The forecast is for rain on the third day of the Test match, with the other days predicted to be sunny and pleasant.

Recent form

SA: WWWLL (last five Test matches, from left to right)

1st Test: South Africa vs India playing 11

Dale Steyn seems likely to not play the first Test. Ottis Gibson seems to be taking the cautious route of not rushing South Africa’s pace spearhead back into action after more than a year out with a serious right shoulder injury. Yet, the home team will not miss him, with Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander forming a fearsome fast bowling trio. Keshav Maharaj is expected to play as the solitary frontline spinner. Captain Faf du Plessis didn’t play the Boxing Day Test against Zimbabwe because of a viral infection and is likely to return in place of Andile Phehlukwayo.

Possible South Africa playing XI for the first Test: 1 Faf du Plessis (c), 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Dean Elgar, 4 Hashim Amla, 5 AB de Villiers, 6 Temba Bavuma, 7 Quinton de Kock (wk), 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Morne Morkel, and 11 Keshav Maharaj

Shikhar Dhawan was last week said to be carrying an ankle injury, but he has been passed fit and is available for selection for the first Test. The team management favours the right-left batting combination at the top of the order and therefore, Dhawan is likely to partner Murali Vijay. Other than this, India have to choose between Hardik Pandya and Rohit Sharma for the No. 6 spot, while Ravindra Jadeja’s viral illness means Ravichandran Ashwin becomes an automatic choice in the playing XI in case he wasn’t already.

Possible India playing 11 for the 1st Test: 1 Virat Kohli (c), 2 Murali Vijay, 3 Shikhar Dhawan, 4 Cheteshwar Pujara, 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Rohit Sharma, 7 Ravichandran Ashwin, 8 Wriddhiman Saha, 9 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 10 Mohammed Shami, and 11 Ishant Sharma

Match prediction

The time for confidence-exuding talk is fast coming to an end and India will have to translate confidence in themselves to performances on the field. I believe that starting the tour in Cape Town, where the conditions are largely batsmen-friendly and dry, will help India. The batsmen will feel they can score runs and this Indian bowling attack is good enough to trouble opposition batsmen in most conditions. But with South Africa also being a good, balanced side, you can expect an even contest between bat and ball. The team who don’t let the nerves get the better of them and are persistent with the bat and with the ball will give themselves a good chance of winning the first Test.

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