In late 2013, the legend of Virat Kohli had started taking shape on South African soil. Playing his first Test in the country, Kohli scored 119 at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, on the first day. It led Allan Donald, the South African bowling coach at the time, to say, “It [the century] reminded me of Sachin Tendulkar when they came here in 1996. I was the first one to say that India does not show much battle, but the one person who jumped up and played to the situation was Tendulkar.”
Kohli spared none that day, punishing bowlers for the slightest of mistakes. His innings helped India draw the Test. But, it lost the second one in Durban, conceding the series 0-1.
Now, after four years, Kohli returns to South Africa, this time as captain. Since that series, he has scored 15 more Test hundreds, is revered as a contemporary great and has become a highly successful captain. India is currently the top ranked Test team and, since 2015, has remained undefeated in 16 consecutive series, in all formats, at home.
Impressive, yes. But, as critics say, that was at home. The South Africa series—three Tests, six ODIs and three Twenty20s—gives India the chance to prove that it is just as good in foreign conditions.
The two teams appear evenly matched, at least on paper, but given the visitors’ incisiveness and variety in bowling, experts give a cautious edge to India.
“The conditions will be testing, but these one and a half years will define this Indian cricket team,” said head coach Ravi Shastri at the pre-series news conference. “With tours of South Africa, Australia and England coming up, all I can say is this will be a better cricket team after 18 months.”
The hallmark of Kohli’s captaincy has been his positive approach and he will look to continue this in South Africa. “It is an opportunity to go back and try to do the same things in a more consistent and better way so that we get the results we are looking for,” said Kohli.
The opposition, too, admits that this Indian team is a different kettle of fish. “They are a team that is young and determined. They have played a lot better over the last few series here compared with the 1990s,” South African batsman AB de Villiers told a newspaper recently. “We know all about Virat Kohli, how determined he is as captain; he’ll definitely come here trying to win and to make history.”
History, however, is not on Kohli’s side. Since India resumed its cricketing ties with South Africa in 1991-92, it has played six series there, drawing one (in 2010-11) and losing five. Besides, the current South African team, even in the absence of de Villiers and pacer Dale Steyn, has won 11 of 20 Tests in the past two years. With Faf du Plessis as captain, the Proteas have won in Australia, England and New Zealand.
Kohli, however, has reasons to be buoyant. His team is rich in experience—the top six batsmen, barring opener K.L. Rahul, have featured in the previous South African tour, and all of them, except vice captain Ajinkya Rahane, are in peak form.
Rahane, who recently had a horror series against the visiting Sri Lankans, has a dependable overseas record. Of his 43 Tests, Rahane has played 24 away from home and has scored more than 60 per cent of his total runs (1,817 of 2,826) in these matches, including six of his nine centuries. In the previous South African tour, he scored two half centuries. So, the team management isn’t too worried about his form. His coach Pravin Amre, with whom he spent a week training before leaving for South Africa, told THE WEEK: “Ajinkya wants to contribute in every series and has been doing so for the past five or six years. The one-week break was good as we went back to basics. It was a blessing in disguise. There is no guarantee of success and you must enjoy the struggles, too. It is important for him to move on. [Usually] among the top six batters, four will deliver; he wants to be in the top four.”
The national selectors have given Kohli a 17-man squad and, perhaps for the first time, India has taken along five full-time bowlers to deal with the fast wickets in South Africa. Among the quicks, the in-form Bhuvneshwar Kumar will likely be supported by Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma. Kohli also has the option of picking Umesh Yadav and debutant Jasprit Bumrah, who has had a magnificent 2017. Bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya, again a 2017 standout, will look to make an impact by adding balance to the team. The spin twins—Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja—have been on song, but the team management is likely to go with only one spinner. An advantage for India is that, apart from the two newcomers, all of its bowlers have previously played in South Africa.
Former Indian pacer Javagal Srinath told THE WEEK that India’s bowlers would only be successful if they “hit the right length”. “It is not the same on every wicket; you need to adjust a bit accordingly,” he said. “That will be a real challenge.” For that, a practice match would have been “crucial”, he said, but the team management opted out of it.
Among bowlers, Bhuvneshwar Kumar would be the X factor for India, said Srinath. “The way he is making use of the new ball, I see him as a strike bowler in this series because of his accuracy and pace,” he said. “The little extra bounce you get in South Africa will be of great help to him. Fifty per cent of the swing he generates here will be really effective there.” He said that Sharma, too, could be a strike bowler, and the key for Kohli would be to use Kumar sparingly, whenever the new ball is used. “There won’t be reverse swing there, so the bowlers need to be all the more accurate,” he said.
While India seems to have a fit and ready squad, the hosts are struggling with some selection issues. The return of AB de Villiers to the Test team, after a 23-month hiatus, boosts the batting line-up, but presents coach Ottis Gibson with a problem—whom to drop? All the batsmen, including Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock, have flourished in the last two seasons, and dropping one of them might upset the team’s balance. Also, there are some injury concerns—du Plessis and de Kock missed the recent one-off Test against Zimbabwe.
Both teams have a lot of momentum heading into the series. However, as India was criticised for playing Sri Lanka at home ahead of a tough tour, the South Africans, too, were flayed for taking on a much weaker Zimbabwe, thus not getting enough preparation.
Both teams also face similar concerns in terms of combination. The question is, whether to go with six batsman, one all-rounder, three pacers and a spinner or to go with seven batsmen, three pacers and a specialist spinner. Dale Steyn will spearhead the South African attack, and he will have Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander for company. The lone spinner is expected to be Keshav Maharaj.
Though Srinath described Rabada as “terrific” and said South African bowlers would have the “home advantage”, he said he still believed that India had the fire power to create history. “The kind of form India is in right now, and with Kohli leading from the front, this is probably the best time to be optimistic of a good result,” he said. “India has the edge.”