The first Test between South Africa and India produced more nail-biting action than all the five Ashes Tests put together. Or so goes the popular sentiment of armchair experts on social media. If the events of Cape Town are anything to go by, we could be in for another treat at Centurion come Saturday.
The two top-ranked sides travel towards the Highveld, with South Africa and India locking horns at Centurion, the former 1-0 up in the series after a thrilling 72-run win at Newlands. In an era in which Test cricket seems to be devoid of context and is losing out on interest in many parts of the world, the Newlands battle was the dose of adrenaline that the longest format desperately needed to stay relevant in this fast-paced age.
For Virat Kohli's India, which rose to the top of the Test table through sheer domination of a wide variety of opponents in the subcontinent as well as the hapless Windies in the Caribbean, the defeat brought the high-flying side back to ground reality — which in this case would be the team's poor record in South Africa, in particular, and in non-subcontinental conditions in general. There was, however, no shame in losing to a team that boasted of one of the greatest pace quartets ever lined up in the history of the game, which was further backed by a batting line-up that went into the tail.
As far as the tourists go, Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri exude enough energy to instil confidence into a side that just fell short despite giving their best. The Indians will have to put the last match behind them and treat Centurion as a fresh start.
"We might do something different also but there is definitely no need to panic," were the Indian leader's words in the press conference a day before what is being seen by the visitors as a do-or-die fixture.
The fact that the Newlands loss has largely been perceived as the Indian batsmen failing to back the good work done by their bowlers means that we could see a couple of fresh faces in the top order. Among the heads to roll in the aftermath of the first Test, opener Shikhar Dhawan seems to be the most likely candidate given his struggle against pace and bounce in overseas conditions, which was highlighted in his poor shot selection in the series opener.
KL Rahul, who scored a hundred in Australia in his debut series, is currently a favourite to replace him at the top of the order, and it remains to be seen if the Karnataka batsman can use his solid technique against the rampaging Proteas attack.
The other change widely discussed has been that of Wriddhiman Saha. Even though the Bengal keeper was in his prime with the gloves, effecting a total of 10 dismissals, he never looked settled with the bat when the team was in dire straits, and his twin failure could lead to the inclusion of Parthiv Patel, a more consistent first-class batsman. The Gujarat captain made good use of the opportunity handed to him during Saha's injury in the home series against England, hitting two half-centuries, and has a good chance of boosting his credentials should he get the call-up.
As far as the bowling combination goes, India could call a workhorse, such as Ishant Sharma, into play, given that he could be someone who can not only bowl long spells but also make good use of the pace and bounce that will be on offer at the SuperSport Park. There has also been talk of the swing factor being somewhat reduced at the venue, which could make Bhuvneshwar Kumar a disposable asset despite a good outing at Newlands. Or India might just give up on their experiment with young Jasprit Bumrah if they are to retain both Ishant and Bhuvneshwar.
However, the hosts are unlikely to do away with Rohit Sharma despite his failure in both innings in the previous Test, which could lead to an extended period of bench-warming for an established overseas batsman in Ajinkya Rahane.
As for the Proteas, Faf du Plessis' team would be somewhat relaxed going into the second game, given that they have swung the momentum in their favour in this series and head to a venue that is described by some as South Africa's answer to Australia's 'Gabbatoir'. The South Africans have a record of winning 17 of the 22 Tests that they have played at this venue, with India suffering an innings defeat in the only Test that they have played here till date.
Add to that the fact that they are largely likely to retain their winning XI from Newlands save for one injury-forced change. With Dale Steyn suffering another heartbreak just when he was looking all set to write a fresh script in what has been a glittering career, the Proteas think tank now have the choice of picking one among Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo, Lungi Ngidi and Duanne Olivier — the last two being added to the squad for the second Test in the aftermath of Steyn's exit.
While the untested Ngidi has been an exciting prospect for the South Africans as far as their domestic system goes, and had a decent limited-overs debut during Sri Lanka's tour last year, it is unlikely that the home team will pick him over Morris as the fourth seamer in the side. Morris not only has a knack for getting breakthroughs with the old ball, but it is his skills with the bat that set him apart, and make him a favourite for the slot. The home side's batting performance did receive a little flak, especially after they were bundled out for a meagre 130 in their second essay, and the additon of the Highveld-based all-rounder could shore that department up.
The pace unit, though, are not expected to lose their sting in Steyn's absence. The trio of Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada certainly will look to keep the party going after decimating the famed Indian batting lineup in the first Test.
What will aid their cause is the Centurion pitch that is expected to be as lively, though wearing a brown look instead of Newlands' green due to the hot temperatures in the vicinity. Having made the Indian batsmen dance to their tunes a week ago, they will be looking to finish the job at Centurion, and play a major role in sealing the 'Freedom Series' for the hosts.
However, Du Plessis has warned his side of taking the tourists lightly at their peril.
"We expect a huge performance from them as they are a very strong team. We don't want to take a step back and rely on a 1-0 lead as if you do that they will pounce on you," warned the South African captain in the pre-match press conference.
While the narrative continues to remain the same for the Proteas as far as hosting an Asian side in a Test series at home is concerned, Kohli's men find themselves trailing in a series of three or more matches for only the second time in the last three years. For once, their claim to being the best side in the world is under serious threat, and unless they can fight all odds to restore equilibrium in the ongoing series, they will have a lot to answer for by the time the winner's trophy is handed over.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (vc), Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Parthiv Patel, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah.
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (c), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock (wk), AB de Villiers, Dean Elgar, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Duanne Olivier, Andile Phehlukwayo, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada.
Venue: Supersport Park, Centurion.
Time: 13:30 IST