Almost a week since the ICC World Cup 2019 got underway, the tournament will really kick-off for its most-followed team on Wednesday as two-time winners India get their campaign going.
So delayed has the start been for Virat Kohli’s unit – presumably down to the BCCI wanting a prolonged gap between the IPL and the start of the World Cup – that their opponents for the opener, South Africa, have already played twice.
Two defeats in those two outings, however, leave the South Africans in a precarious position so early in the competition. And they’ve got a piling line of injured soldiers that doesn’t make their task any easier.
That only adds further spice to what has been an engrossing battle at the World Cup over the years, even if not quite the spectacle that India’s clashes with Pakistan, or South Africa’s with Australia, have been.
Nonetheless, high-profile contests at the big stage are often defined by the battles within the battle – and there’s no shortage of individual match-ups as two of the most consistent teams from the past year lock horns at Southampton.
Here’s a selection of five potentially defining duels as India take on South Africa.
Shikhar Dhawan & Rohit Sharma vs “Not a Lot of Options”
The prospect of opening the batting in England, even with consideration of the mountains of runs scored in the country since the end of the last World Cup, is one that can faze most. Try telling Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma that.
It was here, on the eve of the 2013 Champions Trophy, that MS Dhoni took a decision that would redefine the Indian top-order for the decade, asking Rohit Sharma to take the mantle along with the incumbent Shikhar Dhawan.
Ever since, the duo have walked out to open the innings for India in 14 ODIs in the country, and averaged 64.71 per stand. Taking only the matches in the two ICC events held in England since then – the 2013 and 2017 Champions Trophy – that average burgeons further to 76.60.
It is no secret of any sort that India’s standing in the ODI game is down to the formidability of their top-order; with the world-leading Virat Kohli following the duo, India boast the best top-three in the competition.
South Africa’s hopes of countering that threat from the word go was dealt a blow even before they slumped to their defeat against Bangladesh, with Lungi Ngidi – the pick of their bowlers against England – being ruled out for up to 10 days with a hamstring strain.
But they saw a beacon of light in their old warhorse, who had been held back to allow him a return to full fitness, and a potential last hurrah to a sterling career where he was closing in on 700 international wickets. Instead, Dale Steyn’s last World Cup has ended prematurely, and in heartbreak.
That means two of the three full-fledged pacers in the Proteas camp are out of the reckoning, and Steyn’s replacement, Beuran Hendricks, will only land in England on the morning of the match – reducing their squad, effectively, to 14.
Who do they hand the new ball along with Kagiso Rabada then, in their bid to stem India’s prolific duo?
In skipper Faf du Plessis’ own admission on the eve of the game, South Africa have a tough decision to make – do they bring Dwaine Pretorius back into the XI, giving them three medium-pace all-rounders and elongating the batting order while cutting down on out-and-out fast-bowling options, or do they spin it the other way, quite literally, and draft chinaman bowler Tabraiz Shamsi into the fold?
Neither scenario is all-too-promising, but that’s what South Africa have to work with as they stare at a seven-game stretch where they will likely need six wins.
What will pinch them is that there lay a possible frayed nerve to prey on. Dhawan and Sharma have managed just two 50+ stands in 13 innings this year; take away those two partnerships, and they’re averaging a very mediocre 18.36.
Six summers ago, the Dhawan-Sharma association made its maiden entry in another ICC tournament opener against South Africa. They shared a 127-run stand against an attack similarly laden with fast-bowling all-rounders, and never looked back.
The pair – and India – are counting on the omen.
Virat Kohli vs Imran Tahir
The headline battle for this India-South Africa clash, quite obviously involving Virat Kohli, is him pitting his top-of-the-line trade against Kagiso Rabada, a summit-touching exponent of his own trade. Rabada’s comments about Kohli in the lead-up to the match have only fueled the fire, and that blockbuster battle merits a piece of its own.
But as a result, one key contest that has been underplayed a little is that of the Indian skipper against Imran Tahir.
That facing spin, and more specifically wrist-spin, is possibly the only minuscule blip in Kohli’s otherwise Supermanesque repertoire is something several opposition teams have played on in the recent past, be it international cricket or in the IPL.
In the recently-concluded IPL summer, Kohli only fell to wrist-spin thrice, but two of those came in two innings where he had to face Shreyas Gopal – who has now claimed the wicket of the world’s top-ranked batsman in Tests and ODIs thrice in 12 balls.
What does that have to do with Tahir? Well, Gopal, like his much-senior South African counterpart, has a wickedly-disguised googly, which has troubled Kohli more than any other conceivable delivery in the game.
The number-crunchers in the Proteas camp may have had to tone down their excitement on this parameter at the discovery that Tahir has only dismissed Kohli once in 186 balls in ODIs, while conceding 191 runs.
But in the opening game of this World Cup, at The Oval on Thursday, the 40-year-old got rid of Jonny Bairstow with the first ball he bowled to him (and the second of the tournament). Bairstow’s average facing leg-spin in ODIs prior to that point was 88.
Can lightning, in the form of the spinner who turns sprinter at the fall of a wicket, strike again?
MS Dhoni & Hardik Pandya vs Kagiso Rabada
Finding India’s next finisher. It was the search that took over the mind space of Indian cricket in two years leading up to the World Cup.
They didn’t quite crack that search operation, in that no ‘new’ alternative emerged in the last 24 months, but they still get to go into their campaign with that role resting on two shoulders – one, in MS Dhoni, who is the most experienced in the position across the World Cup, and the second, in Hardik Pandya, who is arguably the most exciting.
And they both enter the World Cup on the back of some rich form.
Dhoni averaged 83.20 this IPL, and before you credit it to the not-outs, be informed that he scored more than 30 in seven of his 12 innings.
Pandya, meanwhile, maintained a strike rate of 191.42 while belting 402 runs – this despite facing more than 20 balls in an innings just once in 15 outings. It would have been league-leading stuff in any season, except this time he had to accept second place behind the superhuman exploits of Andre Russell.
Speaking of Russell, you surely remember that one bowler who stopped him this IPL, in a Super Over at that too? Yes, it was Kagiso Rabada – who displayed his own death overs chops through the campaign, only missing out on the Purple Cap due to his early departure.
How Rabada goes against the Dhoni-Pandya combine becomes the differentiator at the death, regardless of whether India bat first or second. Rabada’s ability to nail the toe-crushers are perhaps second only to Jasprit Bumrah across world cricket right now, but he hasn’t quite set the final overs on fire in the early running at the World Cup so far.
The 24-year-old bowled three overs at the death against England for 30 (with one wicket), and returned two wicketless overs for 19 against Bangladesh.
For the statistically-inclined, Rabada has conceded 55 runs off 66 balls to Dhoni in ODIs, and seven off 12 to Pandya, getting both of them out once.
Quinton de Kock vs Jasprit Bumrah
From one generation-leading bowler to the other, Jasprit Bumrah knows he is central to India’s hopes of lifting a third world title come 14 July.
Sure, India have the top-order, and then Dhoni and Pandya, but entering World Cups with top-notch batting lineups has been a bit of a norm. One luxury India haven’t had at any time in the past is that of going into a World Cup with the world’s leading bowler in their arsenal.
Bumrah, thank the heavens as all of Indian cricket sure did, came out of the entire IPL season unscathed, playing all 16 matches that Mumbai Indians contested despite all the pre-tournament talk of workload management.
His economy rate of 6.63 was the best for any pacer to bowl more than 10 overs in IPL 2019, and he came away with 19 wickets even as most teams set up to safely play him out.
While his death overs potential is among the most exciting facets to watch for on the unresponsive tracks in England, it is Bumrah’s match-up right at the top, against South Africa’s most in-form batsman, which could set the tone for this game.
Quinton de Kock has been having a purple patch of his own, averaging 56 in ODIs in 2019, and he’s got a keen liking for the Indian attack in ODIs: five centuries in 12 innings, and an average of 64.50 – his second-best against any team in the format.
The Proteas opener has been watchful in the limited exchanges with Bumrah before, scoring just 22 runs from 49 balls. But, quite vitally, he’s yet to be dismissed by the Indian spearhead.
If Bumrah can change that at the Rose Bowl, he might put the South Africans on the path to a third straight defeat; if he doesn’t, given de Kock’s affinity to three-figure scores against these opponents, India could be in trouble.
Faf du Plessis vs Yuzvendra Chahal/Kuldeep Yadav
South Africa have only encountered India’s ‘wristies’ in one series, and that was the stuff of nightmares.
India’s 5-1 rout of the hosts in early 2018 – South Africa’s worst-ever defeat on home soil – was built largely around the barely-believable display of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav.
The pair combined for an astounding tally of 33 wickets in the six games, picking up a wicket every 18.7 balls at an average of 15.09 and an economy of 4.83.
As a result, you’ll find that the numbers of most South African batsmen who were around at the time against Chahal and Yadav are quite embarrassing. Barring one.
Faf du Plessis was the only Proteas batsman to not be dismissed by either of the two wrist-spinners even once in that series, and while he has been conservative in his approach while facing them (combined 4.53 runs per over), the most important stat is that he’s faced 45 balls without losing his wicket.
The South African skipper was skillful in his handling of the Bangladeshi spinners at The Oval on Sunday, before giving his wicket to Mehidy Hasan Miraz off what was possibly the only delivery to grip and turn all day long.
Can du Plessis tackle the nemeses of his teammates?
From an Indian perspective, you’ll hope that the think-tank does in fact field both their trump cards in the first place; a possible lack of purchase in the surface, and a definite problem of balance in the side, could tempt the team management to play Ravindra Jadeja, in which case one out of Chahal and Yadav (Chahal, one would assume) will have to warm the benches.