Cricket

India vs South Africa: On cusp of historic series win, Virat Kohli and Co face middle-order selection headache

With the Centurion Fortress finally breached and a maiden Test series victory on South African soil in sight, Virat Kohli-led Team India will have all to play for when they face-off against Dean Elgar’s South Africa, this time at Johannesburg’s 'Bullring' in the second and penultimate Test on Monday.

Up until 30 December 2021, no Asian team had won a Test match at the SuperSport Park in Centurion, and only two teams — England and Australia had done it before in the longest format of cricket.

India now head to Johannesburg with an early momentum on their side. Interestingly, the visitors have led a Test series in South Africa after the first match only once before — in 2006/07, when India, led by then skipper Rahul Dravid, put up a clinical display at the very same venue (Johannesburg) to win by 123 runs.

South Africa, however, bounced back in that series to clinch the trophy 2-1. It will be only fitting enough if India, now coached by Rahul Dravid, actually manage to overcome the Proteas hurdle this time around.

Despite all the dominance in Test cricket, Kohli and Dravid will have a few questions lingering in their mind, especially those that concern the team’s middle-order.

Bring in Shreyas Iyer and Hanuma Vihari?

The top and middle-order form the core of any batting line-up, and it is only paramount that those batters put up that extra effort to stabilise the team’s innings. But the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have not been able to do that for India, and the more the pressure on them, the more they keep dwindling in terms of their form.

Pujara’s scores in Centurion read 0 and 16, while Rahane’s read 48 and 20. Across the two New Zealand Tests Pujara played at home in November, his scores read 26, 22, 0 and 47, while Rahane managed 35 and 4 in the first Test against Kiwis in Kanpur.

Even captain Kohli, who bats at No 4, has struggled for big scores recently. He only managed 536 runs from 11 matches in 2021 at an average of 28.21.

The two middle-order options on the bench are Shreyas Iyer and Hanuma Vihari.

Ajinkya Rahane in action during the Boxing Day Test against South Africa. AP

Ajinkya Rahane in action during the Boxing Day Test against South Africa. AP

Shreyas, 27, enjoyed a memorable Test debut against New Zealand at Kanpur, scoring a century (105), followed by a knock of 65 in the second innings. But those knocks came on home soil, and in his short Test career so far, he’s yet to be tested on foreign conditions.

Vihari, meanwhile, has largely played Tests for India on foreign soil — 11 of his 12 Tests so far have come overseas, with the only Test in India being in Visakhapatnam against South Africa in 2019.

Across the 12 matches Vihari has played so far, he has notched up 624 runs at an average of 32.84, with one century to his name.

Despite all the talk around the under-fire Pujara and Rahane, batting coach Vikram Rathour has called for patience.

"They (Pujara and Rahane) are trying their best, giving their best. Rahane looked in really good touch before he got out. So has Pujara. He has played some important innings in the past. You see these are challenging conditions for everybody ...", Rathour had said after Day 4 of the first Test.

"You need to be patient and as long as they are trying their best and giving their best, as coaching unit we are fine, how much time they get or are we getting impatient, not at this stage,” he had added.

It’s only fair to note that Vihari has been in the Rainbow Nation for over a month, plying trade with India A against their South African counterparts. He’s had scores of 54, 72*, 63 and 13* for India A but with the senior team likely to retain five bowlers, it will be interesting to see if the Hyderabad cricketer makes the cut.

Post-De Kock era

Hours after South Africa's defeat to India last week, came a big announcement of Quinton de Kock taking a sudden call of his immediate retirement from Test cricket.

This means that South Africa now have a huge void to fill in their Test side.

Ryan Rickelton, 25, a wicketkeeper-batter is expected to make his Test debut on Monday. He’s aggregated 2643 runs from 34 First-Class matches at an average of 49.86. All this looks promising, but international Test cricket is a completely different ball game and he will have huge shoes to fill in.

Kyle Verreynne, another wicketkeeper-batter remains an option for the Proteas. He’s played two Tests so far but has only scored 39 runs across the two matches.

Those two Tests came against West Indies in June when Kyle kept wickets for Proteas in De Kock’s absence. It will be interesting to see who Proteas go with considering the uncapped Rickelton’s excellent form with the bat in domestic cricket.

South Africa might also go ahead with five pacers, bringing in Duanne Olivier in place of Keshav Maharaj, given that the pitch favours fast bowlers.

Squads:

India: Virat Kohli (captain), KL Rahul (vc), Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Jayant Yadav, Priyank Panchal, Umesh Yadav, Hanuma Vihari, Ishant Sharma.

South Africa: Dean Elgar (captain), Temba Bavuma (vice-captain), Kagiso Rabada, Sarel Erwee, Beuran Hendricks, George Linde, Keshav Maharaj, Lungi Ngidi, Aiden Markram, Wiaan Mulder, Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen, Kyle Verreynne, Marco Jansen, Glenton Stuurman, Prenelan Subrayen, Sisanda Magala, Ryan Rickelton, Duanne Olivier.

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Updated Date: January 03, 2022 08:03:32 IST

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