With the series tied at 1-1, the two sides head to the picturesque venue Newlands for the decider. But heading into the decider, India have some tough decisions to make.
The return of Virat Kohli in the setup puts a huge question mark on who misses out. On the bowling front, the injury to Mohammed Siraj, which immensely affected India at the Wanderers, will still ring worries for India.
So, how can the visitors take the tough calls?
Virat Kohli’s return marks a tough question
With the Indian skipper Kohli set to walk back into the lineup, the question remains on which of the middle-order batter would he replace. While it might have been a simple equation in the past, with Hanuma Vihari dropping back to the bench, his gritty innings (20 and 40*) at the Wanderers, makes it tough.
Neat little stuff from Vihari. He has locked one end, and Ashwin and Thakur have made use of it and scored 44 off 38 at the other.— Alagappan Vijayakumar (@IndianMourinho) January 5, 2022
In his 13 Test long career, Vihari has just one played one game at home, with his trusted tag of being an ‘away’ specialist. On his South African debut, the right-hander showed great control and precise willow play. Earlier, in India A’s colours, Vihari scored 227 runs, averaging 75.66, with three half-centuries.
"So, it happens (wait) as its nature of the sport," Dravid said adding, "We can take a lot of heart from the manner Vihari batted in this game and that should give him a lot of confidence and that should give us a lot of confidence."
With Rahul Dravid confirming that Vihari and Iyer might have to wait for their chances, the right-handed batter will consider himself unlucky after his twin gritty knocks.
Do India persist with Pujara-Rahane?
The decision around Vihari might not be as straightforward, considering the form of India’s middle-order batters and senior figures, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane.
In India’s first innings show, the backbone of the batting, Pujara and Rahane scored 3 runs in between them. While their second innings partnership might have instilled back some pride and expectations, where both of them scored half-centuries (53 and 58), their shaky form in the past might have to haunt them.
Since the start of 2021, India’s middle-order (3,4 and 5) have the second lowest batting average in Test cricket, with 29.4 runs/wicket.
Amongst the No.3 batters, only Oshada Fernando (27.75) averages lower than Pujara (27.8). Amongst No.5 batters, none average lower than Rahane in the time frame, with 23.77, showing the innate vulnerability in the middle-order for the Men in Blue.
Even if they insist, how long before they break the duopoly?
Who replaces Siraj: Ishant or Umesh?
While Ishant Sharma might have been a sure-shot starter during India’s South Africa tour in 2018, the emergence of Siraj has definitely pushed him to the bench. But with Siraj’s injury, it presents India with an interesting equation, Ishant or Umesh Yadav?
The merits for both the players are interesting, one offers express pace while the other offers more control and seam movement both ways. Umesh’s ability to bowl the booming in-swinger while having the innate ability of bowling the scrambled seam might come as handy for the visitors, especially when you consider Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s impact at the venue.
Alongside that, the Vidarbha pacer has the skillset to reverse the old-ball, something that was causing quite a mayhem in South Africa. Though traditionally a starter in India, there is a real possibility that Umesh could be real handful in South Africa with his express pace and the ability to extract some awkward hitting deliveries.
The merits of playing Ishant
On the other hand, is Ishant, a veteran, previously was a shining light in India’s performance in South Africa. The lanky pacer is a menace to any batting unit, with his release point coming at a towering height. One issue that has continually haunted the pacer has been injuries, which has defined his start-stop career.
But if Ishant is deemed fit by the management, his ability to get uneven bounce with his height might seem to be a very tempting prospect for India. Especially with how the first two Tests went, where India did not have a bowler who could capitalize much on the uneven bounce, barring Shardul Thakur.
With Ishant, India also get a bowler who can control the tempo of the innings and his ability to swing it sharply might also come as a bonus to the bowling unit. Vernon Philander and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have both shown that pace isn’t as vital as control over the skills. So, in that case, would the prospect of playing Ishant tempt more, as a leader of the bowling unit in Cape Town?
The Ashwin factor
Ravichandran Ashwin is unique, he is India’s greatest off-spinner, the sole spin all-rounder in this squad and yet, his role with the ball thus far has been very minimal. In fact, most of his overs came in the aftermath of the injury to Siraj, which shows that the conditions have not been that friendly to spinners.
So, do India, considering what happened in the previous Test, go with an all-out pace attack, with Thakur being the only all-rounder?
Pros and cons are very simple: the pros being that Ashwin could offer a great deal of hold-up play with the ball and his effectiveness with the bat, has been seen. In just two Tests, Ashwin has scored 80 runs, has more runs than Pujara and Pant.
The major con being that in case of an injury to a pacer, India might have to go through what they did in the second Test, where spin wasn’t quite an ideal weapon of threat.