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Two years after a painful fumble, India look to conquer their final frontier

Last updated on 25 Dec 2023 | 10:05 AM
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Two years after a painful fumble, India look to conquer their final frontier

The defeat in the 2021/22 tour is, to date, seen as the biggest ‘missed opportunity’ of the Dravid era

“So close, yet so far” is a theme that’s been recurring for Team India under head coach Rahul Dravid. And we can probably trace the origin of this theme back to the tour of South Africa two years ago, in 2021/22.

India entered the three-match series having never won a Test series in South Africa, but a Test and a half later, they found themselves in pole position to pocket the series with a game to spare. India had been so dominant in the first Test in Centurion that many even predicted a whitewash in favour of the visitors against an under-confident, Nortje-less South African unit.

However, in a cruel twist of fate, India, with a landmark win in sight, collapsed spectacularly to surrender the series 2-1 and keep the unwanted drought intact.

The defeat in the 2021/22 tour is, to date, seen as the biggest ‘missed opportunity’ of the Dravid era. 

But two years on, the Indian side have the golden opportunity to right the wrongs.

The tourists will be without Mohammed Shami, who was both India’s highest wicket-taker and best bowler in the previous tour, but they are bolstered by the presence of captain Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja, two key cogs who were not present two years ago due to injury. 

The core, otherwise, is intact, so it goes without saying that India, this time around, too, will fancy their chances of securing a maiden Test series win in the rainbow nation.

South Africa, meanwhile, will be without Anrich Nortje for this tour too, but the past couple of years have seen Marco Jansen levelling up significantly as an all-rounder and Gerald Coetzee emerging as a serious prospect. 

Thus despite questions surrounding their batting, the hosts will certainly believe this is a series that’s theirs to lose due to the sheer firepower and the command over conditions they possess. 

Things to watch out for

How will the Indian newbies cope with the South African conditions?

Back in 2021/22, India put out an extremely experienced batting line-up, but things will be very different this time around. 

The visitors are set to field, in their first XI, all three of Yashasvi Jaiswal, Shubman Gill, and Shreyas Iyer, none of whom have played Test cricket in South Africa. Gill and Jaiswal, in fact, have not even played any first-class cricket in the country, while Iyer last played red-ball cricket in South Africa back in 2017, representing India ‘A’.

Historically, South Africa has always been a very tricky country to bat in for newcomers, but the challenge is bound to be a significantly tough one for the aforementioned trio due to just how difficult batting has been in the rainbow nation of late. 

Since 2019, batters’ average of 26.52 in South Africa is the lowest among all countries. Batting, generally, has been so hard that there’s not been a single drawn Test in South Africa in the last four years. 

If you take SuperSport Park in Centurion, the venue for the first Test, it has the fourth-lowest batting average since 2019 among venues where at least three Tests have been played in the last four years.

It won’t be an overstatement to claim that Iyer, Jaiswal & Gill are set to face the toughest test of their international career yet. 

Can Aiden Markram kick on and crack the Test code?

We’ve been having this discourse every year for the past four years, but anyway, will this finally be the series in which Aiden Markram kicks on and becomes an indispensable part of South Africa’s Test side?

For the longest time, Markram has shared a love-hate relationship with Test cricket but in the last series the Proteas played against West Indies, the 29-year-old came into his own and bagged the Player of the Series award in a low-scoring series. There, Markram scored 76 runs more than any other batter and registered scores of 115, 47, 96 & 18 across two Tests, proving to be a standout in some fashion.

The right-hander was considered a walking wicket during the previous India tour, but his confidence is through the roof currently due to how well he’s performed across the white-ball formats.

With Dean Elgar in his last legs and with the Proteas set to field a pretty inexperienced middle-order, Markram stepping up might be a necessity more than a luxury for the hosts. 

The beginning of a new chapter for KL Rahul

The last time India toured South Africa, Rahul was an opener and a stand-in captain. Two years on, the 31-year-old is all set to embark on a new journey — of being a wicket-keeper batter in the middle-order.

In his 47-match Test career, only once has Rahul batted below No.4, but nailing batting in the middle-order in Tests is something he *should* be able to do, due to the experience he possesses. What will be a challenge for him, however, is donning the gloves in the longest format.

Rahul’s exceptional showing with the gloves in white-ball cricket has seen him get elevated as a frontline gloveman in Tests, but keeping in red-ball cricket is a whole different beast altogether. It is why we still see several teams pick their ‘best keeper’.

South Africa, again, is not a country where it’s easy to keep, so Rahul will have his work cut out.

ALSO READ: Will Ashwin sit out an overseas Test again?

Ground Details

The first Test will be played on Boxing Day at the SuperSport Park in Centurion, a venue where India registered a 113-run victory in the last H2H encounter.

Six Tests have been played in Centurion since 2018 and it’s a venue where batting gets difficult with time. 

In the last five years, Centurion has the highest first innings (inn #1 and #2) average among all South African venues (29.9), but in the second innings (inns #3 & #4), it has the lowest average among all venues in the country (20.5).

This is why four of the last six Tests at this venue have been won by the team batting first. Hence there’s a high chance that the captain winning the toss tomorrow might opt to bat.

In the aforementioned period, Centurion has proven to be a graveyard for spinners: a staggering 93% of the wickets have been taken by seamers, with the quicks averaging 22.8 compared to spinners’ 61.9.

Tactical Insights

> In the 2021/22 tour, the South African pacers relentlessly attacked Virat Kohli’s fifth/sixth stump and were duly rewarded for it, with the right-hander losing his patience every single time, throwing his bat at a wide one. The Proteas pacers will almost certainly deploy the same strategy this time around as well.

> Markram will be relieved to not be facing Shami, who dismissed him 4 times in the previous tour at an average of 8.00, but the Indian seamers would do well to replicate Shami’s modus operandi vs Markram, which was taking the ball away from him. In that series, Markram averaged 6.5 vs balls moving away, with the average dropping down to 3.00 against away-swingers / nippers bowled by Shami. 

> South Africa should turn to Jansen as soon as Rahul walks out to the middle. In the previous tour, Jansen bowled 105 balls to Rahul and conceded just 27 runs, while dismissing the right-hander thrice at an average of 9.00. Rahul found Jansen’s angle from over the wicket impossible to deal with. 

Team news and likely XIs

Expect India to go in with Jadeja plus four seamers at SuperSport Park, with Prasidh being one of the four seamers.

India likely XI: Rohit Sharma (capt), Yashasvi Jaiswal, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul (wk), Shreyas Iyer, Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumrah, Prasidh Krishna, Mohammed Siraj

For South Africa, expect Keshav Maharaj to play despite Centurion being a spinner’s graveyard

South Africa likely XI: Aiden Markram, Dean Elgar, Tony de Zorzi, Temba Bavuma (capt), Keegan Petersen, Kyle Verreynne (wk), Marco Jansen, Keshav Maharaj, Gerald Coetzee, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi

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