From the gritty Mohammad Azharuddin-Sachin Tendulkar 200-plus 6th wicket stand and Sreesanth’s on-field breakdance, to India’s memorable 87-run win in Durban and one of the closest fought draws in the history of Test cricket at Jo’burg, India’s tours to South Africa have never been short on drama. One thing, however, that the Men in Blue haven’t ever been able to achieve on any of their six visits is a series win in the Rainbow Nation. Beginning January 5, Virat Kohli’s recordequalling team will be attempting to break the jinx in the Proteas’ den. The question is, can they do it?
Team India will land in Cape Town for the first Test on the back of their second-best annual record, ahead of any series in Africa. Their seven wins in 11 matches is only bettered by the visiting squad of 2013/14, which had won 100 per cent of its six games played in the preceding year. Four of those half-a-dozen victories had come against the weakened Aussies of 2013, though, followed by a hammering of the generous West Indies in Tendulkar’s farewell two-match series.
On the other hand, the current bunch fought back to clinch a memorable 2-1 series win against the spirited Aussies in 2017. Next up was another unprecedented feat, achieved by whitewashing the Sri Lankans in their own backyard (the 208- run pounding of Bangladesh in Hyderabad last January isn’t even worth bragging about). What was noteworthy in both these triumphs was the manner of victory. An indomitable character downed the Aussies, while it was pure muscle that blew away the neighbours from down south.
More importantly, these conquests have been built on some outstanding individual performances. Virat Kohli has cemented his place among the game’s elite after yet another brilliant year with the bat (and also as a captain; he can hardly put a foot wrong at the moment). Three double hundreds in 2016 were followed by three more in 2017, two coming on the bounce in the last series of the year, at home against Sri Lanka. The skipper amassed 1,059 runs at an average of 75.64, including five hundreds and a fifty. Top-order compatriot Cheteshwar Pujara deserves to be mentioned in the same breath, as he topped the charts for the most Test runs in 2017, scoring 1,140 at an impressive 67.05 per innings. He crossed the half-century mark on nine occasions, including four 100-plus scores. The rest of the batting order bears close resemblance to the 2013/14 unit, other than Wriddhiman Saha replacing MS Dhoni, and the addition of KL Rahul (if fit) gives the team management a headache they won’t mind (with both Shikhar Dhawan and M Vijay also raring to go). Ajinkya Rahane has been off-colour lately, but he’s known to come into his own overseas.
More than the batting, which has performed consistently over the past couple of tours, it’s the bowling that holds the key this time. Many former players and experts believe that the bowling attack’s ability to pick up 20 wickets will be South Africa’s undoing. The spin twins, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, will receive ample support from a fast bowling unit comprising Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, all of whom averaged under 30 last year, unlike the lineup from the previous tour. Ishant Sharma established himself as the senior pro by seamlessly replacing one of the injured bowlers in the year-end series versus Sri Lanka, while the impressive Hardik Pandya must also be waiting eagerly in the wings for the fifth bowler’s role. Expect the uncapped Jasprit Bumrah to come to life on ‘S’african’ wickets if given a go.
The hosts, however, won’t let Kohli & Co breathe easy. They’ve warmed up well enough after beating the crap out of Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe don’t pose much of a threat either. In their ranks is Dean Elgar, who is among the leading run-getters of 2017, while Faf du Plessis’ side boasts of various other match-winners in AB de Villiers, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander. If the Indian bowlers turn up in force the way they have been doing in India over the past 24 months, the visitors will have their best shot at glory in South Africa. Of course, some Kohli magic would help.