To say South Africa have been outclassed in the ongoing One-Day International (ODI) series would be putting it mildly. Questions have been raised about Proteas' ability against wrist spin. India have hardly broken a sweat to ensure that they won't lose the series. Such has been the domination of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav in the first three matches. The hosts' frailties have been exposed, the senior batsmen have found themselves wanting and a newly-appointed captain has so far had no answers to the team's indifferent performances or the time to boost the atmosphere of the dressing room.
Chahal and Kuldeep have snared 21 of the 28 wickets that India have managed to take in the series so far. Their average reads 10.47 coupled with a frugal economy of 3.77 and a brilliant strike-rate of 16.6. Everytime the spinners have come into the attack, South Africa have lost a slew of wickets and truth to be told, if it wasn't for Kohli's conservative decision to go back to his fifth bowler and a part-time bowler — in this case Hardik Pandya and Kedar Jadhav — whenever new batsmen were at the crease, the hosts would've folded far more early in the previous two matches.
Yet, there will be smiles in the South African camp. There will be a sense of calmness which might have been missing after they lost three frontline players to injuries. One of them though — and undoubtedly the best of three — has returned and will feature in the fourth ODI, a must-win for the hosts if they are to save the series.
During the Test series, captain Faf du Plessis had said that they thought the Indian team relied on Virat Kohli for runs. Whether the statement was justified or not is a debate for another day, but hardly a couple of weeks later, in the absence of arguably their best batsman, runs have deserted the South African ODI side, which is why the return of de Villiers is of paramount importance to Markram and his men.
Even though, it is said, that a single player cannot change the fortunes of a struggling team, when that player is of the stature of de Villiers, one can expect a drastic turnaround. His presence will not only help the side on field but also off it.
"Apart from what he brings on the field, it's what he brings off the field. He brings that calmness and he brings that experience. I'm sure AB will have a few pointers for the guys on how to handle spin and how to play spin, maybe a few different attacking options," said Chris Morris in the pre-match press conference in Johannesburg.
Apart from his return, one more factor is tilted in South Africa's favour. The Proteas will play the Johannesburg ODI in their pink attire, an initiative they have adopted since 2013 to raise awareness about breast cancer and interestingly they have won all the five Pink ODIs.
JP Duminy, while dissecting as to why the South African batsmen have struggled against wrist spinners, said Chahal and Kuldeep have bowled "a touch slower" and "haven't bowled full enough to hit down the ground; that is where we have been successful". Along with that, they have not been able to stitch partnerships but with de Villiers back at number four, things might change for Proteas. Rookie Khaya Zondo has looked assured against spin and senior batsman David Miller might have to make way for 'ABD'. Senior bowler Morne Morkel, who was rested for the third game, may also replace Lungi Ngidi, whose inexperience showed on his debut.
Although one might feel that India don't have any weaknesses given the way they have played so far in coloured clothing, Rohit Sharma's form and Hardik's ten overs —even if his bowling improved in the previous match — is a cause for worry.
South Africa is turning out to be a disastrous venue for the Indian vice-captain, who has amassed runs in all the countries quite consistently. In the twelve ODIs that Rohit has played in the 'Rainbow Nation', he has never crossed 23 and averages 12.10. He is currently regarded as one of the best openers in ODI cricket and will want to improve his record in the next three matches.
After the belligerent 93-run knock in the first Test, Hardik has not done anything noteworthy on the tour sans a couple of breathtaking catches and brilliant run out. With Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Chahal and Kuldeep, India have a dominant bowling line-up and Hardik is seen as the weak link with Jadhav pitching in with his unconventional off-spin every alternate match. The Baroda all-rounder was promoted in the third game but didn't make the most of the opportunity. Given that his role is crucial in this eleven, he should look to regain his form both with the ball as well as bat.
With Kohli's purpe patch in 50-overs cricket refusing to end, the likes of Dhoni and Jadhav have not had enough opportunities to make any significant contributions. That might just continue in Johannesburg too if South Africa don't get rid of Kohli early, who has already accumulated 318 runs.
The average score batting first in day matches at the Wanderers is 271, however the score drastically changes in day-night games: 220. Given the controversy surrounding the pitch in the third Test, it is unlikely that we may see any changes from the normal in the Pink ODI.
Considering how the games have panned out, in all likelihood, India will go into the fourth ODI as favourites and would want to win their first ODI series in South Africa early and test the bench strength later. But South Africa have de Villiers in their team now and the Test series was a shining example of how much of a difference he makes. The situation is grim for the Proteas but 'ABD' has the experience and the skill to turn it around.
India: Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, MS Dhoni, Kedar Jadhav, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah
South Africa: Hashim Amla, Aiden Markram, JP Duminy, AB de Villiers, Khaya Zondo, Heinrich Klaasen, Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari