December 24, 2021: The India versus South Africa Test series should be an exciting affair. Although on paper, India seems ahead, the first Test match at the Centurion Park on Boxing Day should be an evenly-fought contest.
The South African side, after a victorious Test-series win against the West Indies away from home recently and with a seven-straight win record at the Centurion ground, could turn out to be quite a handful for India.
The Proteas have the bowling firepower to create a dent in India’s well-acclaimed batters. The Covid-19 virus has brought about a unique situation wherein a visiting side unfortunately is unable to play practice matches before the Test series. This, therefore, does not give sides time to acclimatise to the conditions.
Both the bowling and batting, in order to attain their best, require them to play a few tougher games to get adjusted to the surroundings. The bowlers need practice with their length whereas the batters with their stroke-play.
The Indian side has in the past struggled to get into their groove initially and have paid a heavy price before recovering from it. The Centurion wicket has the bounce, pace and movement in the air and off the wicket and how quickly India adapts to it will be important. No amount of practice can replicate the situation in the centre, especially when one is under immense pressure to perform.
The subconscious mind comes into play and controlling those imbibed instincts and adapt to the newly-acquired ones is what becomes difficult. One has seen on earlier occasions when several of the Indian batters have fallen prey to this adjustment in the past.
The South African side at present is in the process of rebuilding. They have had several of their established stalwarts retiring together, and so the newer batters have still to get themselves recognised as portent threats and make their mark. Being unknown entities, they have nothing to lose and at times this could prove successful.
India, on the other hand, are a well-established team with most of their players with a good track record behind them. The issue that they face is on selecting the playing eleven. The injury to Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill has put their opening pair concerns to rest.
Mayank Agarwal, the prolific scorer from the last series against New Zealand at home, will in all respects retain his spot along with KL Rahul, the vice-captain. The problem, however, would arise as to play the experienced Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane or the recently successful debutant, Shreyas Iyer.
A similar situation could arise between Rishabh Pant or Wriddhiman Saha for the wicketkeeper’s spot. Although Ravichandran Ashwin being the only spinner of repute in the side being a certainty, the inclusion of Jayant Yadav could be at stake. India has a lethal fast-bowling attack and with Jasprit Bumrah and Mohd Shami being certainties, the toss-up would be between Mohd Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Shardul Thakur and Ishant Sharma.
Virat Kohli and Rahul Dravid have a major decision to make, especially as Team India has put in place a policy that senior players on their return will be rightfully given their place ahead of a newcomer even though the latter has done well. The present bio-bubble restrictions and injuries to players has made this issue even more complicated leading to uncertainties and unnecessary shuffles in the playing eleven.
India, in all the cricketing formats of the game, has become a victim of their own making. With a number of players to choose from, they have somehow faltered in selecting the ideal combination when most needed.
The other major issue one feels that is hovering over both the Indian and the South African sides concerns their countries’ cricket administrators. Dean Elgar, the South African captain in his recent interaction has stated that even he is completely at sea regarding the situation of his Cricket Board, whereas, Virat Kohli has had his concerns and differences with the BCCI as well. The situation off the field, one hopes, does not have a detrimental impact on the way the players perform out in the middle.
India has a golden opportunity to create another historical moment in its cricket history. A Test series win for the first time in South Africa is very much on the cards for their talented bunch of players. They did so in style in Australia in the early part of this year and with the same grit and determination that they showed there, one expects them to achieve a win here as well.
The Indian players have to concentrate and focus on the present playing issues rather than what took place in the past. Ravichandran Ashwin’s remarks about his agonising mental state relating to India’s earlier coach Ravi Shastri’s remark and behaviour was uncalled for before a major Test series.
One does understand the frustration and mental stress that Ashwin may have gone through, but, having proven himself successfully through it, there was no need to bring the past into the picture at this juncture.
The South Africans do have an advantage playing in their backyard. However, the Indian side is way ahead both in batting and bowling as well as in experience. Once again fielding and catching will play an important part in the final outcome. South Africa has always been known to excel in that department but India recently have shown that they have improved significantly.
Win or lose, for the Indian side to put all the Covid virus threats aside and play a series in South Africa needs one to give them all the accolades. The winner after all will be Test cricket.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal.)