India’s quest for its last frontier begins on Boxing Day

Cricket, featured, Test cricket

India’s quest for its last frontier is here.

Come this Boxing Day, Virat Kohli’s men will take on Dean Elgar’s men at the SuperSport Park at Centurion.

India are yet to win a Test at SuperSport Park. However, they have a great chance of changing their fortunes as they face the weakest South African Test team they have ever encountered in South Africa.

Will Virat Kohli’s men take their chances and register India’s first Test series win in South Africa?

India
The last time India were in South Africa, their batting cost them the first two Tests.

In all six innings, India crossed 250 runs only once. Even though the series was a low-scoring affair, India’s inability to stay close to South African scores cost them the first two Tests.

In addition to India’s failures with the bat, AB de Villiers rescued the South African batting on multiple occasions during the first two Tests to prevent them from collapsing under the weight of the brilliant Indian bowling.

AB De Villiers bats on day 1 of the 4th Sunfoil Test in 2018

(Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

With AB de Villiers retired and no new star emerging in the line-up, the South African batting is highly vulnerable.

The Indian bowling, which started its renaissance period during the previous Test series in South Africa, will be licking its chops. I expect Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj and Ravichandran Ashwin to be the front-line bowlers for the first Test.

After his second wind in the 2018 to 2020 period, Ishant Sharma has looked tired in the recent Test matches. We saw the difference in energy between Siraj’s spells in the Mumbai Test and Ishant’s in the Kanpur Test.

I hope that Virat picks Siraj over Ishant. If he has to couch this decision as a niggle replacement, so be it. The right combination has to play.

Shardul Thakur should take the lone bowling all-rounder spot in the team.

As far as the batting is concerned, the Indian team looks nearly the same as in 2018. The team is a tad weaker than they were in 2018.

Virat Kohli plays a cover drive

(Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

The absence of in-form Rohit Sharma and the continued travails of the middle-order batsmen makes this Indian batting line-up quite vulnerable.

The onus will be on KL Rahul to continue his form from the English series. Hanuma Vihari looked in good touch during the recently completed India A series in South Africa.

I am still not convinced of Mayank Agrawal’s ability on South African pitches, which seam way more than those in Australia.

Shreyas Iyer is another Indian batter with a pronounced weakness against the short ball. I will be shocked if India play Ajinkya Rahane in the first Test.

Finally, India will pray for their captain to come back to form and provide solidity to the middle order. It is high time that Virat scored his 71st century during this series.

The conquest of the last frontier with a Virat century will be sweet for the Indian fans.

South Africa
Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander were the bowlers that India faced in the Cape Town Test in 2018.

Until the time Steyn got injured during that game, these four fast bowlers gave me a glimpse of what life was for batters facing the West Indian pace quartet in the late ’70s and ’80s.

Steyn sat out the next Test match, and in came Lungi Ngidi. There was no respite for the Indians in that series.

However, much has changed in the last three years. Steyn, Morkel and Philander have retired, leaving behind Rabada to carry the flag of the South Africa fast bowlers.

A month back, I was looking forward to seeing Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje bowling to India in the highveld. An untimely injury to Nortje has weakened the South African bowling considerably.

The line-up of Rabada, Ngidi and Duanne Olivier is a good attack but hardly the quartet that India faced in 2018.

Kagiso Rabada

(Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Wiaan Mulder is one of the few all-rounders in the South African set-up. So he will most likely be the fourth fast bowling option.

If the South Africans want to take a chance, they could look at springing left-arm fast bowler Marco Jansen to surprise the Indians. Keshav Maharaj will be the lone spinner in the team.

When it comes to the batting department, Aiden Markram is an exciting prospect for this series.

During the 2018 series, Markram was rated so high in the South African set-up that he was tipped to be the future South African captain a la Graeme Smith.

Markram scored an excellent 94 in the Centurion Test match in 2018. Since that bright start, injury and lack of form have pushed Markram out of action for many months.

He has now re-emerged, mainly through fine performances in T20 cricket. I expect him and Quinton de Kock to bring flair to the otherwise dour batting line-up of the South Africans.

Quinton de Kock

(Photo by Christiaan Kotze / AFP via Getty Images)

Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma are reliable top-order batsmen who put a high price on their wickets. Rassie van der Dussen is another batsman with good stroke-making abilities.

Apart from these few names, the South African batting line-up is an unknown commodity.

I looked at the scorecard of their recent tour of the West Indies to get an idea of who South Africa will play in the rest of the positions.

Keegan Petersen and Ryan Rickleton seem to be the options for a top-order place, with Petersen being the incumbent batter.

Overall, this South African team does not look anywhere close to the formidable teams of the past.

As Fanie de Villiers said, this series is India’s best chance ever to win a series in South Africa. Most pundits will concur with that view.

My picks for the first Test

Indian XI
Mayank Agrawal, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant, Shardul Thakur, Ravichandran Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj.

South African XI
Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Keegan Petersen/Ryan Rickleton, Rassie van der Dussen, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Wiaan Mulder, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier, Lungi Ngidi/Marco Jansen.

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