Injury niggles hamper South Africa while Pujara is likely to miss out in first Test in Mohali
Having played exclusively overseas in the last 23 months, India’s cricketers can be excused for wondering what it is like to play a Test match on home turf. They can also be excused, therefore, for wondering where all this talk of home advantage is coming from, given that it will be a somewhat novel experience for all of them when the first of four Tests against South Africa begins at the PCA Stadium on Thursday (November 5).
So much time and attention and energy has been devoted to the 22-yard strip of green and brown over the last few days, and yet no one is quite sure how it will pan out. Pitch No. 5 at the PCA Stadium is a tired one, some 23 years old and relaid not once in that period. To expect considerable life will be naive; to expect the ball to fizz and turn at right angles right from the first session too will be silly. Those who have played on that surface this season assert that whatever happens off the surface will be slow. Whether that means what will happen over the next five days will also be slow and undramatic remains to be seen.
South Africa’s propensity to travel well has ensured that it has always acquitted itself with credit in India; in the last several years, India have also started to relish the prospect of conquering distant lands, and as recently as its last tour to South Africa in December 2013, came away with reputations enhanced after going down 0-1 in a two-match series, this after having failed to drive home the advantage in the first Test in Johannesburg when it was ahead of the eight-ball.
One of the key factors for India’s increasingly burgeoning reputation overseas has been the form of Virat Kohli. The right-hand batsman will lead India out in a Test match at home for the first time ever on the day he turns 27, a special occasion for a special player who is determined to do special things with his team of intrepid young warriors.
India isn't unaware of the magnitude of the challenge ahead of it. Even in isolation, to take on the best Test side in the world is no small ask, never mind if it is in your own backyard. Given that South Africa is riding high on confidence following its twin successes in the T20I and ODI series that preceded the Tests makes it an even more difficult side to try and stop.
Cricket, however, is seldom played along the lines of relative skill-sets of the players alone. Especially in the subcontinent, it is as much an examination of nerve and character as it is of the dead-bat forward defensive stroke or the banana reversing inswing that starts outside off and homes in on leg. There is plenty of meat in South Africa's middle order even in the injury-enforced absence of JP Duminy, but there is enough inexperience around Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers for India to exploit, and that’s what Kohli and his team will be targeting.
It is more or less certain that India will stick to its current formula of playing five bowlers, and almost as certain that three of those five will be R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra, all of them more than competent with the bat. Umesh Yadav will be one of the new-ball bowlers, and indications are that Ishant Sharma’s absence through a one-Test ban will make Varun Aaron the beneficiary. Whether Yadav and Aaron, both pacy but both also historically fairly erratic, are the two best options is open to question; Stuart Binny might provide greater control than either, and India can’t realistically expect to blast South Africa out through pace alone, given the nature of the surface. But if Kohli is more comfortable with the two fastest bowlers in the squad getting into the XI, then obviously that’s his call.
The more tricky call, it might appear, is deciding how to fit Cheteshwar Pujara into the XI when only five slots are up for grab. Pujara made a series-deciding unbeaten 145 in his previous Test appearance, as an opener, in Colombo in early September, but he only played that game because both Shikhar Dhawan and M Vijay, the designated first-choice openers, were out injured. With Dhawan and Vijay back to full fitness, Pujara will have to make way, which answers the said question emphatically – there is no place for Pujara just yet.
The argument that Pujara should supplant Rohit Sharma in the middle order isn’t totally without reason, but at the start of the Sri Lanka tour, Pujara didn’t figure among the best five batsmen in the squad – both Kohli and Ravi Shastri, the team director, have said as much. Rohit didn’t have a horror tour upon dropping down to No. 5 after the first Test, and has been in great touch during the ODIs. And while he hasn’t always lived up to the faith of successive captains, he has shown indications of turning his Test career around, and therefore must be persisted with for now at least.
As for South Africa, Duminy’s unavailability isn’t its only source of concern. There are question marks over whether Morne Morkel has made a full recovery from a sore leg that forced him to miss the last two ODIs, and whether he can survive the rigours of five days of Test cricket. But while Morkel is an irksome nag, the bigger blow is Duminy. Not only does he provide experience and class at No. 6, he is also a more than handy offspin option. South Africa must now decide whether it must play a second spinner because it can’t summon Duminy’s offspin, or go with its traditional strength and pack the side with three quicks. It’s a tricky call to make, one that will occupy the mindspace of Amla and Russell Domingo, the coach, a fair bit.
South Africa anywhere is a formidable force, dynamic and driven and capable of rising to the most demanding of challenges. India at home is a tremendous unit that knows how to keep an opponent down. The script has been laid down. Whether the actors choose to follow it, or ad-lib and throw up something extraordinarily unconnected, is what will hold all the attention for the next five days.
India: Shikhar Dhawan, M Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli (capt), Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron, Stuart Binny, Cheteshwar Pujara, KL Rahul, Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
South Africa: Dean Elgar, Stiaan van Zyl, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla (capt), AB de Villiers, Temba Bavuma, Dane Vilas (capt), Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Simon Harmer, Imran Tahir, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada, Dane Piedt.