The Proteas could clinch the series with victory at a venue which has become their fortress.
From one fortress to the next. That’s the gist of India’s journey from Newlands to SuperSport Park in Centurion. Down the road at The Wanderers, South Africa have suffered their share of defeats, including to India in 2006. But Centurion is where visiting teams come for a Highveld mauling. But for one Test in 2014, when Mitchell Johnson bowled like the wind to take 12 wickets and inspire a 281-run victory, South Africa have never lost in 21 Tests at the venue. There was one more defeat, in January 2000 against England, but that match is forever tainted because of the subsequent revelations about Hansie Cronje's match fixing.
India played here in 2010, and lost by an innings, despite a second-innings hundred from Sachin Tendulkar – his 50th in Tests – and the record books show that they lost an unofficial Test in 2001 as well. That game was downgraded from official status after a stand-off over the bans handed down to half a dozen Indian players for excessive appealing in the previous game.
In fact, South Africa have won their last Tests at Centurion against each of the four Asian sides by an innings. As many as eight of the 17-man squad are contracted to the Titans franchise that calls SuperSport Park home, and Faf du Plessis, the captain, knows exactly what to expect, even if a week of intense heat has burned off much of the grass on the pitch.
"It looks a bit browner than I thought it would be," said the Proteas skipper. "The information from the groundsman is that the grass on the wicket has been burnt from the heat over the last week. It was very hot. We’ve asked for pace and bounce so hopefully we will get that."
"It looks likely a really lively pitch," said India captain Virat Kohli. "Exactly what we expected it to be and we actually wanted it to be that way so that both teams are in the contest provided they play some good cricket. This pitch will again test us to play our best cricket and that is something that we are looking forward to."
On a surface where the ball usually zips around and comes for the throat, India have a couple of batting conundrums to solve. The batting meltdown in Cape Town started at the top, and the signs are that KL Rahul’s more orthodox approach will replace Shikhar Dhawan’s flamboyance. But after twin failures, including a loose shot in the first innings, Murali Vijay will feel the scrutiny as well.
India could even go completely left-field and play Parthiv Patel, the reserve wicketkeeper, instead of Dhawan. Patel’s short stature means he’s unlikely to get into a tangle against the bouncers, and he’s one Indian batsman who enjoys playing cross-bat shots. If he does play, it opens up an additional middle-order berth.
Rohit Sharma made 11 and 10 at Newlands, leading to calls from back home for Ajinkya Rahane, the vice-captain who averages 53.44 away from home, to be reinstated in the playing XI. Kohli conceded that he was undecided about whether to play the extra batsman or stick to four specialist bowlers and the all-round skills of Hardik Pandya.
“It’s important that we don’t panic,” he said. "It’s funny how things change in a matter of weeks, or just about five days. Before the first Test no one thought that Rahane should be in the XI and now suddenly people are looking at the other option. He’s a quality player, he’s done well in South Africa – all conditions actually away from home. He’s probably been our most consistent and solid player away from home. I explained the reasons why Rohit started ahead of him. I’m not saying that Ajinkya cannot or will not start in this game. Possibilities are all open at the moment and we shall decide after practice."
India could even opt to bring in Rahane for the specialist spinner R Ashwin, with the pitch not expected to offer much turn. But at a ground where Paul Harris and Muttiah Muralitharan, a fellow off-spinner, enjoyed so much success, it would be a big surprise if Ashwin didn’t start, more so with the sun beating down so relentlessly on an already bleached surface.
For South Africa, who must replace the injured Dale Steyn, the choice is between Chris Morris, an all-rounder who can bowl genuinely quick, and Lungi Ngidi, a promising fast bowler who du Plessis watched for the first time only on Thursday. Ngidi is the future, but Morris also offers an additional batting option.
"The team that we selected last week [for the first Test] we thought was the right team and it worked really well. Dale [Steyn] was the world’s best bowler so he brings that to the table and now [that he has been ruled out for the series] we need to look at whether we want to keep that same balance – of four seamers and a spinner – or do we look at an all-rounder. Once again it’s a tough selection but it’s a nice one to have."
India have produced their best cricket in South Africa when completely written off – in Johannesburg in 2006, and Durban four years later. But if they’re to get anything from what is actually the Proteas’ favoured den, the batsmen will need to make a significant step up from what they managed in Cape Town, where South Africa’s all-bases-covered attack skittled them for 209 and 135.
The second Test between South Africa and India begins on Saturday 13 January.
South Africa (likely XI): Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis (cap), Quinton de Kock (wk), Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Lungi Ngidi/Chris Morris
India (from): Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (cap), Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Hardik Pandya, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Parthiv Patel (wk)
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