The contrast between the sides could not have been more jarring ahead of the third Test in Nagpur starting (). Here was Virat Kohli, confident, positive, aggressive and itching to get out there and seal the series, making the most of the Mohali win and the Bangalore draw. And here was Hashim Amla, quiet, collected, diffident almost as he fielded questions on his own form and the challenges of batting in Indian conditions.
India was faced with a pleasant problem of plenty when it came to picking its XI for the game. Should it bring Amit Mishra into the mix in place of Stuart Binny and perhaps Rohit Sharma for one of the quick bowlers? Should it stick to two quick bowlers or go all out with spin?
South Africa too was grappling with selection dilemmas, but of a completely different kind. With Amla all but ruling Dale Steyn out of the game, the bowler not having recovered sufficiently from a groin injury and a three-Test series against England at home beckoning, the bowling definitely lacked its most dangerous leg. And what of spinners on a surface expected to aid them?
Amla backed his spinners, but added: “To play three front-line spinners, I’m not sure if that’s a possibility for us.” He instead hoped to turn to his part-time spin options. “We have JP Duminy who bowls offspin quite regularly, so he adds an option as a spinner. We have Dean Elgar who bowls left-arm orthodox.”
If Amla’s problem was the lack of options in the slow bowling department, Kohli knew he could call on a three-pronged attack that South Africa will find hard to resist. R Ashwin has been magnificent, a throwback to the times when every team that wanted to be successful in the subcontinent boasted at least one skilful spinner. Ravindra Jadeja understands the mechanics of left-arm orthodox bowling on wearing tracks like someone who was born purely to do so. Mishra provides the perfect variation to both other spinners, having the ability to create different angles, use dip and flight and get the ball to either come in to or leave the batsmen.
The rise and rise of Ashwin has been central to India’s fortunes and Kohli did not hold back on the praise. “If you see his bowling in the last six months he has got back to basics, he has not tried too much with the ball. You hardly see the carrom ball, so he is relying on his natural bowling action and his stock ball. He is flighting the ball, he is giving more revolutions on the ball and he is getting stronger fitness-wise as well, which is helping his bowling big time because he is able to put the force behind the ball and get more turn and bounce off pitches which other bowlers find difficult to get,” said Kohli. “Obviously he is using his skill combined with fitness and he is just becoming a better bowler everyday. As a captain, I am delighted Ashwin is in our team along with Amit Mishra, who brings a lot of variation for us and Ravindra Jadeja, who is very, very consistent. All these three put together, if I was playing against them, I would find it really difficult to score, I can assure you that. I am sure it is not pleasant facing all three together and I am glad we have all three in our team.”
If he was happy to have this spin trio in his back pocket, Kohli did not seem particularly concerned on whether South Africa could call on Steyn or not. “We have played him enough times in the past, we have scored enough runs against him in the past. It does not make a difference if he is playing or not. We treat every bowler the same way,” said Kohli without the slightest hint of disrespect. “It is not certain that everyone will do well in a Test match or a cricket game, someone else might step up so you can’t take anyone lightly or more seriously than the other. We treat everyone equally. It doesn’t really matter, it is eventually a cricket ball coming out of anyone’s hand, it is not the name that we play, it is a cricket ball that we face and you got to back your ability to tackle whatever is thrown.”
There’s a lesson there for Amla and South Africa as it tries to draw level in the series. The visiting side needs to find a way to play one ball at a time, and get the basics right.
India: Shikhar Dhawan, M Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (capt), Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddiman Saha, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra, Ishant Sharma, Varun Aaron/Umesh Yadav.
South Africa: Stiaan van Zyl, Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla (capt), AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Dane Vilas (wk), Kyle Abbot, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir.