Top-ranked Test side India faces a litmus test when it takes on hosts South Africa in a three-match series starting at Newlands in Cape Town on Friday. The Indians have traditionally straggled on the bouncy South African pitches, winning just two and losing eight Tests with seven games being drawn in the six series played so far. India's best performance till date has been a 1-1 result in 2010-11 under M S Dhoni's captaincy. This was also the lone occasion in which India managed to draw a series on South African soil.
Virat Kohli's Team India have been on a roll, winning nine Test series on the trot, stretching back to 2015. But the key point is that the Indians played mostly at home during this period, with the away tours being only to Sri Lanka and the West Indies. The clash with the No. 2-ranked Proteas on their own den is the toughest challenge so far for Kohli as captain.
Focus on openers and Pujara
A lot will depend on how the Indian openers Murali Vijay and K L Rahul fare against the South African new ball attack. It could well be a blessing in disguise that Shikhar Dhawan is likely to miss the first Test with an injury. There is still a big question mark over the left-hander's technique against top-class pace bowling in Test cricket. Vijay and Rahul along with one-drop Cheteshwar Pujara will have to shield the middle order consisting of Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma for India to make 300-plus scores.
The famed Indian batting came a cropper in their first innings against Sri Lanka on a seaming Eden Gardens track in the opening Test of the recent series. Lanka had only one world-class bowler in Suranga Lakmal and if the Indians found him too hot handle, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and a fit-again Dale Steyn await them. This is precisely the reason the Indian think tank has to include Rohit in the playing eleven and not fall for the temptation of accommodating all-rounder Hardik Pandya.
The last time South Africa toured India in 2015, the Indians prepared rank tuners at Mohali and Nagpur and went on to the win the four-match series 3-0. It could well have been a whitewash, but for the Bengaluru Test getting washed out after the first day.
The South Africans will be keen to dish out fast, bouncy tracks and find out how good the Indians are. The Indian batsmen were blown away by the Australian and Sri Lankan pacers on helpful wickets at Guwahati and Dharamsala in a T20 International and one-dayer this season.
There has been a lot of speculation about the kind of wicket which will be on offer for the first Test. But one thing is sure - even the most placid of South African tracks will have good bounce and carry and it will be a challenge for the Indian batsmen. The Board of Control for Cricket in India has not helped the cause of the Indian players by not giving them enough time to get acclimatized to the conditions. The Indian team management decided to cancel the two-day practice match and has instead decided to sweat it out at the nets. One has to say this is hardly the right kind of preparation for a series as important and demanding as the South African tour. Barring Australia and England, the rest have found the going tough in South Africa. The sub-continental teams have struggled over the years.
Pacers have to deliver
India are pining their hopes on the pace attack comprising a much-improved Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar to lead them to a historic series win. Umesh has been simply brilliant for Kohli in the past two seasons and the Vidarbha pacer should be an automatic choice in the first eleven. Ishant bowled his heart out in the last two Tests against Sri Lanka. The experienced pacer has to prove his value this time around. There is no doubt about the skills of Shami, but the same can't be said of his fitness and it remains to be seen whether the Bengal pacer will last the tour. Bhuvneshwar has grabbed the chance whenever he has been given one and the UP medium-pacer will be tough to get away if there is any swing on offer.
Off-spinner R Ashwin should pip Ravindra Jadjea to the lone spinner's spot considering the fact that South African batting line-up consists of left-handers Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock. How Ashwin performs in the first Test will have a bearing on whether Jadeja will get a look-in as the Indians are likely to go in with three pacers and the lone spinner.
Slip catching will be vital
India's slip catching will go a long way in deciding the outcome of the series. Rahane, Vijay and Pujara will have to be in fine catching form and it will be prudent on Kohli's part to stay away from the slips for the simple reason that he is not a natural in that position.
India will have to play consistent cricket throughout the five days to harbor hopes of winning the Tests. One bad session could cost you the game and the Indians have to be wary of it.
The contribution of Rohit, Wriddhiman Saha and Ashwin/Jadeja will be crucial in India putting up challenging totals. The Indian lower middle-order has been simply sensational at home and it will have to tackle the second new ball and a menacing attack in alien conditions. Likewise, the Indian attack will have to polish off the South African tail if they want to prevent the hosts from posting huge totals.
South Africa made mincemeat of Zimbabwe in the one-off four-day Test recently, with the match lasting just a couple of days. AB de Villiers is back in the longest format of the game and the dashing batsman will be keen to make a mark.
Despite all the optimism expressed by the Indian camp, the very fact that the Proteas are playing at home make them firm favorites. They should emerge comfortable winners, though one would be delighted to be proved wrong.