India brace up for test by fire

India brace up for test by fire

Kohli's men face their toughest challenge in recent times from South African pace

India brace up for test by fire

If a cricket ground were to be a boxing ring, then the clash between India, the No 1 Test team in the world, and South Africa, placed second in ICC rankings, would be a battle for the  heavyweight world title.

It's the clash between an  immovable object and an irresistible force. While Virat Kohli's men eye a piece of history by becoming the first Indian team to win a series here, South Africa will strive to maintain their proud home record as the first Test begins here at the Newlands Stadium on Friday.                

The high hopes around this Indian team aren't a stretch by any imagination, and South Africa are aware of the challenge before them. While they realise the might of Indian batting, it's the visitors' pace attack that the hosts would be wary of.

Never in their previous visits to the Rainbow Nation have India boasted of pace bowling resources as they do now. It's not only the quantity – as many as six pacemen including all-rounder Hardik Pandya are in their ranks – that's impressive but the quality and variety that they bring to the table are equally exciting.

While in Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami India have highly skilled pacers who are adept at exploiting seam and swing conditions, Umesh Yadav can hustle the batsmen with his pace. Ishant Sharma, a hit-the-deck-hard bowler, brings with him a vast experience of bowling in these conditions while Jasprit Bumrah, who is yet to make his Test debut, adds novelty factor to the attack.

This is exactly what Faf Du Plessis was alluding to when he spoke of the pitch he would prefer. He doesn't want too much seam movement because it will bring the Indian pacers too into play. That perhaps explains why some of the grass was shaved off on the eve of the match.      

The Indians will be under no illusion about the conditions they will encounter. While no one from South Africa has spoken openly about payback time for what they had to go through in 2015 when they were totally outclassed on square turners in India, the selection of Test venues for the three-Test series leaves little doubt as to what the hosts have in offer for their rivals. Leaving out Durban was a dead giveaway not only because the large Indian expat community there has always rooted for the country of their origin but also because it's a venue where Indian batsmen have had more success.        

There was no clarity on Dale Steyn, returning after a gap 14 months, being included in the South African eleven but even otherwise the home team possesses one of the finest pace attacks, especially in home conditions. With Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada at his disposal, along with pace-bowling all-rounder Chris Morris, du Plessis is spoilt for choice.

Indian batsmen have trained hard in the run-up to the series, having cancelled a two-day tour game for some quality practice. They have batted on a variety of pitches – damp, bouncy, grassy – to prepare themselves for what they will be encountering during matches. How much of that effort bears fruits remains to be seen as Rabada, with his pace, Morkel, with his bounce and Philander, with his seam and swing, will ask some tough questions and Kohli and company will have to prove that they are no flat-track bullies.              

Left-armer Keshav Maharaj will be the lone spinner in South Africa on a pitch where the tweakers' role is going to be limited. India will go with off-spinner R Ashwin and three seamers. While Shami and Bhuvneshwar are certainties, there could be a debate over Umesh and Ishant though the latter was impressive in the last two Tests against Sri Lanka last year.

There could also be a lot of deliberation on including Rohit Sharma as the sixth batsman ahead of Pandya as there could be on the opening combination. Going by the pattern of selection from the last series, M Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan should open the innings but the temptation to play KL Rahul, who is more equipped to tackle seaming conditions, in place of Dhawan is irresistible.

 

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