With a spire of Devil’s peak and flat highland of Table Mountain in the backdrop, the picturesque Newlands Stadium in Cape Town is set to host the much-anticipated lung opener of India’s tour of South Africa. The colosseum is ready for the two star-studded teams to come out and perform.
After rampaging through the home season, Virat Kohli and his men would now look to move mountains, as it were, as they look to begin their ‘defining period’ away from home.
Although in order to achieve success in South Africa, the visitors will have to defy their poor record of managing just two wins in 17 Tests that they have played on these shores.
The chief selector, MSK Prasad, believes that the current Indian pace bowling attack is the best that has toured South Africa. Sachin Tendulkar too has backed the balanced Indian team to do well, indicating that this tour might be India’s best chance to win a series in the Rainbow Nation.
Another huge reason that suggests India can achieve unprecedented success in South Africa is that 13 of the 17 players from the previous tour of 2013-14 have been retained in the current expedition. A team that has grown in confidence and experience with its core intact has the chance of scripting history by becoming the first side from Asia to beat the Proteas in a Test series in their own backyard.
Newlands, the home to Western Province, might not be as quick as the pitches at The Wanderers (Johannesburg), SuperSport Park (Centurion) or Kingsmead (Durban), but it will still be a tough venue for the touring side. The last team to win a Test in Cape Town, apart from Australia, was New Zealand in 1962. Despite losing over two decades to Apartheid, Newlands has hosted over 30 Tests since its readmission.
With the steep bounce on the pacy South African wickets likely to test the Indians, perhaps it could even be the decisive factor as far as the series is concerned. The Indian team addressed the difficulty in their intense practice sessions before the first Test. After practising the first day at the Western Province Cricket Club, India had their second day of training on the main ground.
Sanjay Bangar, the assistant coach, placed out four tennis balls, two on each side of the practice pitch, about four metres away from the stumps and with a gap of close to a metre between each ball. The exercise was done for the batsmen to adapt to the bounce that the pitches in South Africa offer. The area demarcated by the tennis balls was one from where the ball would have bounced over the stumps, which then could have been safely be left alone by the batsmen.
As we look a little beyond cricket the situation is grim with the Western Cape province of South Africa, which has been enduring its worst drought in over 100 years. With scarce rainfall in the area, it has forced the government to put a cap on the usage of water for the citizens as well as tourists.
Understandably, the watering of the ground would also be affected, but reports suggest water from borewell was utilised for the preparation of the pitch and according to seam bowler Vernon Philander, there is some amount of grass on the pitch, but nothing to scare anyone.
Both team managements will be under a lot of pressure to select the playing XI for the first Test. Ottis Gibson, South Africa's coach, made the headlines after casting doubts over Dale Steyn’s return to Test cricket.
With Gibson reluctant to rush South Africa’s premier bowler into the series, the Proteas' bowling attack is expected to comprise Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Philander and spinner Keshav Maharaj.
There couldn’t have been a greater boost for the home side than the return of AB de Villiers, who marked his comeback to red-ball cricket with a half-century in the Boxing Day Test against Zimbabwe. De Villiers took a break from Test cricket, not featuring in the longer format from January 2016 to almost the end of 2017. Skipper Faf Du Plessis, all-rounder Chris Morris and wicket-keeper Quinton de Kock are all likely to come back. Du Plessis and Morris missed the four-day Test against Zimbabwe due to injuries, while de Kock sustained a hamstring injury during the opening day of the one-off day-night Test.
For the visitors, Ravindra Jadeja being down with fever solves bit of a headache, as far as which spinner is to be picked in the XI is concerned. Shikhar Dhawan's return to full fitness after suffering an ankle injury, however, reopens the opening conundrum. The opening combination will be a three-way tussle between Dhawan, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul.
It will be interesting to see if Kohli and Co field five bowlers including Hardik Pandya or prefer playing six batsmen giving the in-form Rohit Sharma the nod.
With hardly anything to choose between two evenly matched sides, it is just the matter of which team blinks first. However, even if by the tiniest of margins, it is the hosts who would begin as favourites.
Can ‘King’ Kohli and his troops ascent to unmatched greatness? Or will the Proteas manage to rock their throne?
South Africa: Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis (c), Temba Bavuma, Quinton De Kock, Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel.
India: KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Ravichandran Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma.