Team India under Kohli look poised to capture the last frontier – South Africa
It’s an indication of how far Indian cricket has come that every time the senior men’s team embarks on an overseas sojourn, its passionate followers have come to expect nothing less than a victory.
It can be a terribly heavy cross to bear. More celebrated sides of the past, not least the team of the 2000s studded with such glittering jewels as Sehwag and Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman, Kumble and Harbhajan and Zaheer, were seldom saddled with such expectations. If they were competitive in England or Australia, South Africa or New Zealand, it triggered waves of feel-good, if not euphoria.
But if there’s one thing that’s to be said of Virat Kohli and his merry band, it’s that they don’t live in the past. They don’t measure themselves against their predecessors. They don’t even judge their abilities as against their opponents. Their battles are internal, their biggest competitors themselves. Every time they step on the park, they want to be a better version of their previous selves. If there is one legacy Kohli and immediate past head coach Ravi Shastri can be proud of, it is this.
There is no secret to why India have become such a strong travelling force since 2018. Their awe-inspiring, envy-triggering pace attack, is spearheaded by Jasprit Bumrah and rejuvenated by the smashing arrival of the exuberant Mohammed Siraj.
No team embarks on a mission without lofty goals and ambitions. To achieve these goals, however, desire and belief alone aren’t enough. One must possess the resources to translate desperation into reality. Armed with this realisation, Kohli and Shastri set about stacking up a pace arsenal for the ages, with the astute B Arun, the former bowling coach, as the Dronacharya.
It was four years back, in Cape Town, that India unleashed Bumrah on the Test stage. Considered an exclusive white-ball exponent, it didn’t take the man with the novel action and a wonderful set of skills long to dispel the myth that he couldn’t survive the rigours of five-day cricket. Within weeks of his debut, Bumrah had established himself as the lynchpin of the bowling group. Alongside Mohammed Shami and Siraj, he forms one of the most potent pace trios in the world. It is to this triumvirate that Kohli and head coach Rahul Dravid, in his first away Test assignment, will look as India chase a series victory in the only country where it has proved elusive.
India first visited the land of the Proteas in 1992-93 – indeed, that ‘Friendship’ series marked South Africa’s return to Test cricket after 22 years of isolation owing to Apartheid. India have been beaten in six of the seven showdowns there, the lone stalemate coming in 2010-11 when Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men missed a glorious opportunity to seal the decider at Newlands and settled for a 1-1 scoreline. The skew in South Africa’s favour doesn’t tell the entire story. Apart from 1996-97, when India were beaten out of sight in the first two Tests, face-offs have been hard-fought, South Africa proving a shade better in familiar conditions.
If there is reason to believe India are primed to conquer what’s looming as their Final Frontier, it’s not hard to see why. With the exception of Siraj and Shardul Thakur, all of India’s pacers have played Tests previously in South Africa on multiple occasions. They know what lines to employ, what areas to target, what lengths will catch rather than miss outside edges. They have a greater understanding of what it takes to pick up wickets, and they have worked out a plan to hunt in pairs, if not as a pack. With R Ashwin bowling as well as he ever has, there is even greater cause for optimism that India will be able to make serious inroads into a South African batting line-up clearly in the middle of a prolonged phase of transition.
In 2018 – when India went down 1-2 – the result would have been vastly different had they not muffed a chase of 208 in the first Test – the hosts were able to fall back on the class and experience of Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and skipper Faf du Plessis. All three have been lost to Test cricket since – the first two are fully retired – which means much of the onus of carrying an inexperienced batting group rests on the shoulders of Dean Elgar, now the captain. As pugnacious and unyielding the left-handed opener is, he is no Joe Root, Kane Williamson or Steve Smith. Elgar will need support, not least from the likes of Aiden Markram, Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock – who will miss at least one, if not two Tests to be with his wife for the birth of their child.
While the match-up between India’s bowling and South Africa’s batting would appear lop-sided, the same doesn’t apply to the reverse. India’s batting has been shaky and uncertain, especially in the middle-order where the seasoned trio of Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane combined have one century in the last 24 months. The solidity that Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul provided in England in the summer won’t be reprised, with the former ruled out through injury, while Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant will be tested in their first taste of South African spice in Test cricket.
Despite a late blow stemming from express pacer Anrich Nortje withdrawing due to injury, South Africa have a supreme pace attack. Kagiso Rabada has excellent support in Lungi Ngidi and Duanne Olivier, with left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj an able foil. India must hope for Kohli, without an international hundred for 25 months, to hit peak form and rally his batting troops around him if victory in South Africa is not to be a step too high again.
A fascinating battle of wits over three Tests and three weeks is certain to unfold once play is called in Centurion on Boxing Day Sunday. In normal course, India should start odds-on favourites, but their stuttering batting means little can be taken for granted.