By Ashis Ray
London, Dec 24 (IANS) More than ever before, India can win a Test series in South Africa starting on Boxing Day — a feat they’ve never accomplished before. But the tourists need to guard against being over-enthusiastic about playing four specialist fast bowlers, as this might detrimentally weaken the batting.
In a nutshell, all-rounder Shardul Thakur must be included in the playing XI to bat at number seven and double as the fourth quicker bowler. His game-changing performances on his debut in Brisbane in January – three for 94 and four for 61 with the ball and 67 in the 1st innings — and in the Oval Test in September — where he posted 57 and 60 with the bat in two contrasting displays and collected three wickets — underline it would be insensible to drop him. Doing so would also disturb the team’s balance.
Ravi Ashwin is probably the most effective spin bowler in the world today. It was a mistake to ignore him in England. While the pitch at Centurion, the venue of the first test, is not known to respond to spin, it has historically provided bounce, which should suit the off-spinner. Indeed, his variety and deception in the air and off the wicket is likely to trouble the South Africans.
Cricket in South Africa is played with the Australian-made Kookaburra ball rather than the English manufactured Duke. This means the stitching, known as the seam, is less pronounced by comparison, though not as flat as earlier models. In short, it shouldn’t swing or seam as much or as long as it does in England. The pitches for the three Tests could also have less grass, but are expected to be harder — and therefore the ball is liable to fly off the pitch, especially at Centurion, more than in other countries.
The hosts are confronted with a conundrum. Do they opt for fast wickets? These will certainly help the Kagiso Rabada-led pace attack; but it would equally assist the now quite potent Indian quicker bowlers, with Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, and Mohammed Siraj, Umesh Yadav, and Ishant Sharma in their squad. South Africa will, on the other hand, miss Anrich Nortje because of injury, while Lungi Ngidi will be returning after a long lay-off.
South Africa’s third fast or fast-medium bowler is likely to be chosen from Duanne Olivier, 21-year-old left-arm Marco Jansen, the more experienced left-arm fast-medium Beuran Hendricks, Glenton Stuurman, or Sisanda Magala. The first two are genuinely express. Wiaan Mulder as an all-rounder will possibly act as the fourth seamer, with left-arm orthodox spinner Keshav Maharaj as the slower exponent.
India have to ensure they don’t expose their batting. Ashwin batted courageously at Sydney at the beginning of the year and capped this with a century at home at Chepauk against England in the spring. But it is a gamble to send him in at number seven in conditions outside the subcontinent.
India’s headache stems from whether they keep faith in the seasoned Ajinkya Rahane in an important series in the World Test Championship (having recently lost points by failing to force a win against New Zealand at Kanpur) or explore the promise of Hanuma Vihari or Shreyas Iyer at number five.
In the past eight Tests abroad — four in Australia and as many in England — Rahane is among only a trio who registered three-figure knocks, with his match-winning hundred at Melbourne. Vihari has since his debut in England in 2018 looked adequate, without really breaking through. Data on Iyer at the Test level outside India is obviously non-existent, for his only two appearances have been in India. Perhaps, initially, it ought to be a toss-up between Rahane and Vihari.
On paper, the South African batting is less experienced than in the past. But captained by opener Dean Elgar, they should not be underestimated in their natural habitat. Aiden Markram at the top of the order is now an established batsman; and a good start matters. Rassie van der Dussen and vice-captain Temba Bavuma are consistent as well. But they could be denied Quinton de Kock’s vital services as wicket-keeper-batsman because of him claiming paternity leave.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, my India XI in the batting order for Centurion is: Rahul, Agarwal, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane/Vihari, Pant, Thakur, Ashwin, Shami, Bumrah and Siraj.
(Senior cricket writer Ashis Ray is a broadcaster and author of the book ‘Cricket World Cup: The Indian Challenge’)