The stage is set for the start of the test series between South Africa and India for the Freedom trophy which is currently held by the Proteas after their 2-1 series win at home in early 2018. When they start their first test at Vizag on October 2nd, the Proteas will be determined to erase the memories of their last test series on Indian soil in which they were spun out by 3-0 on spin friendly decks. With the South African batsmen’s well documented weakness against spin bowling and with Bumrah out of this series with injury , pitches assisting spin could well be expected again. One expects that this time around the South African batting will be better prepared as it doesn’t require a magician to predict ,the type of pitches India are going to prepare. India are leading with 120 points in the Test championships league table whereas South Africa will be starting their campaign with this test series.
A look at the South African squad ,gives a clear impression that they are a team which is going through a transition phase. They have lost the cream of their batting with Dvilliers and Amla retiring from international cricket in recent times. Their current batting will revolve around skipper Faf Duplessis, Dean Elgar and Quinton Dcock their 3 most experienced batters. Adien Markram, Temba Bavuma and Theunis de Bruyn have now got their opportunities to strongly fill the huge vacancies left by Amla and Dvilliers to the tune of around 17000 odd test runs. Both Markram and Bavuma has already taken encouraging strides in test cricket but a lot will depend on their success in India on how they negotiate the spinning tracks. De Bruyn has shown solidity in the Australian series at home. In Zubayr Hamza ,the Proteas claimed to have unearthed a future batting talent. Hamza is coming off a strong domestic season and is likely to be in the starting XI . Bowling wise, the visitors will of course miss out on Dale Steyn and Morkel ,both of whom have retired. Thus a huge pressure on the talented Kagiso Rabada, the 2nd ranked bowler in the world, who will be spearheading the attack. In Anrich Nortze, the Proteas have unearthed an exciting quick bowler , who is capable of rattling opponents with raw pace. However the Proteas will definitely go in with bowling allrounder Vernon Philander with his swing and seam variations . In all probability the visitors will start the series with Rabada ,Philander and Ngidi. The last named already had his share of injury and fitness issues and will surely hope to have a full series as his talent ,pace and skills are highly required to support Rabada ,if South Africa wants to post a strong challenge to the Indian batsmen. In the spin department, the Proteas will start with left armer Keshav Maharaj ,who has already showed his utility in the team . Their other spinning stocks are Dan Peidt and spin allrounder Senuran Muthuswamy. The probable South Africa XI for the opening test will be : Elgar, Markram , Bavuma, Duplessis, De Bruyn/ Hamza , Decock, Philander, Muthuswamy, Maharaj, Rabada, Ngidi.
India were dealt a severe blow before the start of this high profile series with the loss of Jasprit Bumrah due to his stress fracture in lower back which needs at least 2 to 3 months rest to cure. Umesh Yadav thus gets his chance again to redeem himself. However Bumrah’s absence might not affect India’s tag of being the favourites to win this series as they have in Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma, very capable fast bowlers and will be further replenished by world class spinners in Ashwin and Jadeja with Kuldeep in the wings. In all probability, Shami , Ishant ,Ashwin and Jadeja will be the four bowlers with number six batter Vihari ,the 5th option and both the Yadavs may miss out in the opening test. Will be interesting to see whether Kuldeep keeps his spot for the opening test after his fifer at Sydney test in 2018 or whether Ashwin returns to the fold. Jadeja , of the three looks most likely to keep his spot since his batting has also flowered during last one year in overseas conditions. The specialist batting looks comparatively more settled ,however all eyes will be on Rohit Sharma ,who finally gets his chance to open the batting in test cricket after KL Rahul has got dropped due to prolonged failure as a test opener. Rohit has been a champion opening batsman in limited overs, tearing apart best of bowling attacks but opening in test cricket is a different ball game, where the red ball moves more and more stress on consolidation at the start of an innings . It will be really interesting to see how Rohit approaches his new role against a decent new ball attack of the visitors –whether he will employ the safety first approach or be more like himself ,employing his aggressive mindset. Probably he needs to do a balance of both. The other opener, Mayank Agarwal after an ordinary Caribbean tour needs to get runs to consolidate his opening spot as there are many other incumbents like Easwaran, Panchal and Gill waiting in the wings. Thus it’s a testing time for both the openers in the team. The middle order looks set with Pujara, Kohli, Rahane and Vihari filling the spots. The other intigruing question is , who will be the keeper in the XI. Saha has done little wrong since his comeback from injury and he is the senior and the more accomplished keeper, now that India will be playing spinners at home and it requires greater keeping skills to keep to Ashwin and Co. Pant’s keeping ,though not poor by any means is still inferior to Saha but the former is the better batsman with test 100s already on his first tours of England and Australia, never achieved by any keeper-batsman before. Though Pant has had some poor outings lately in shorter formats, in all probability he will be in the starting XI for 1st test at least. So, the probable India XI to start the series could be : Rohit, Mayank, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Vihari, Pant, Jadeja, Ashwin, Ishant and Shami.
India definitely favourites to win the series in home conditions with a weakened South Africa batting , lacking the experience of retired stars, Amla and Dvilliers. However, the sudden unavailability of Jasprit Bumrah and an new look Indian opening partnership , gives the Proteas certain openings to work on. After all, they drew the recent T20 series 1-1 against all odds, hence India will have to be on their guard as there are some quality present in this South African squad.
The full squads
South Africa : Faf du Plessis (capt), Temba Bavuma (vice-capt), Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock, Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Senuran Muthusamy, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Vernon Philander, Dane Piedt, Kagiso Rabada, Rudi Second.
India: Virat Kohli (Capt), Mayank Agarwal, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (vc), Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant (wk),Wriddhiman Saha (wk), R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Shubman Gill.