Friendlier foes have labelled them rank turners, clueless opponents have called them dust bowls, ragged rivals have described them as minefields, but for India, the hallowed 22-yard cricket pitch has served as the foundation of their fortress that has been breached only four times since 2010, and only once since December 2012.
Team India have recorded 32 wins of the 45 Tests (four losses and nine draws) in this decade so far, constituting an unrivalled 71.11 percent success rate. Australia, with 64.71 percent success rate in home Tests, are significantly behind at second spot. When it comes to a complete series, of the 17 hosted by India, including the one-off Test against Afghanistan, they have won a staggering 15, having lost one and drawn one, with the winning percentage for series rising to an astounding 88.
The last home season of the 10-year period begins with the Freedom Series against South Africa with Virat Kohli’s men looking to stretch their dominion as they target a historic 11th consecutive series win on home soil.
Despite the absence of strike bowler Jasprit Bumrah and with another new opening pair given a go, India begin the series as overwhelming favourites, with 'spin to win' likely to be their mantra. For the first 40 of the 120 World Test Championship points up for grabs, India start the three-match series at the ACA-VDCA Stadium in Visakhapatnam on 2 October.
Having travelled across the globe playing most of their red-ball cricket overseas in the last two years, the Indian side would be eager to revel in home comforts. In addition to their domination in India, Kohli’s men enjoy a psychological edge over South Africa from the 3-0 drubbing they dished out on their previous tour of 2015. The nature of pitches in that 2015 series remained a focal point during and even after the course of that tour. The ICC even rated the wicket at Nagpur 'poor', but since then, India have only gone from strength to strength with the emergence of world-beating pace attack.
Kohli, a staunch follower of 'controllables', even tried taking the toss out of the equation in their last T20I against South Africa in a bid to toughen his side for sterner challenge. The Indian captain has gone on record to say that pitches don't matter to them as India look to thrive in all conditions, so it will be interesting to see what wickets are offered for the series.
In complete contrast to India’s impregnable home record, the Proteas lost their latest Test series to Sri Lanka, who became the first Asian side to complete the feat in South Africa. After a 0-2 loss to Lanka, a dismal World Cup campaign followed, where Faf du Plessis’ side finished seventh in the 10-team competition. Throw in the AB de Villiers’ controversy, retirements of stalwarts Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn, and the rift between the players union and the administrators, a sterner – perhaps the sternest – test in the form of a tour to India, couldn’t have come at a more challenging time.
However, even with their backs against the wall, a little peek into South Africa's preparations will reveal that the visitors have gone the extra mile to usher in a new dawn.
An 'unofficial' five-match ODI series before the T20I series was arranged against India A. In addition to the limited-overs games, two first-class matches and one practice fixture against Board President's XI were part of the tour. Several members of South Africa's T20I and Test squads featured in those games. The CSA even organised a week-long spin camp comprising 15 members in Bengaluru in August.
Off-spinner Dane Piedt, who was part of the India tour back in 2015 and is likely to play a key role along with Keshav Maharaj, led the group of young bowlers like Bjorn Fortuin, Tsepo Ndwandwa and Senuran Muthusamy.
Along with Russell Domingo, the ‘A’ team coach, CSA also sent former left-arm wrist spinner, Paul Adams, as the spin bowling consultant while former batsman Ashwell Prince was named as the batting consultant for the camp.
“We have identified Aiden Markram, Zubayr Hamza and Temba Bavuma as key Proteas batsmen to benefit from this project and we have also included some of our potential stars of the future such as Janneman Malan and Sinethemba Qeshile, who have already both played for the Proteas, as well as Matthew Breetzke,” CSA Chief Executive Thabang Moroe had said in a media release.
Leaving no stone unturned, the tourists even roped in India’s domestic giant and former Mumbai captain Amol Muzumdar in their coaching setup for the series to guide the younger batsman against spin bowling.
Some of the results have already bore fruit. Fortuin had an impressive start to his international career in the T20I series. Bavuma, whose stay in India has already extended over a month now, made a couple of significant contributions in his debut T20I series before carrying his confidence to score an unbeaten 87 against the BPXI last week. Highly-promising talent, Aiden Markram, warmed-up with two centuries from three games on this tour.
South Africa spinners, Maharaj and Piedt, might not match India's Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja pound-for-pound, but Maharaj said that he aims to replicate the consistency of his more established contemporaries, Ashwin and Jadeja, reflects his desire to leave a mark in upcoming series.
With 94 wickets in 25 Tests at an average of 28.44, including a nine-wicket haul in an innings in Sri Lanka last year, Maharaj possesses a serious threat. While Piedt, too, has come into the side on the back of some excellent performances. The Cape Cobras captain with 54 wickets from 10 First-Class games was the leading wicket-taker in 4-day franchise series in South Africa. The right-arm off-spinner also took five wickets in the practice match in Mysore.
Despite South Africa’s best efforts, their slightly inexperienced batting might come short against the deadly spin combo of Ashwin and Jadeja and will be heavily relied on experienced players in Dean Elgar, Du Plessis and Quinton de Kock to do the bulk of the scoring. However, having done their homework right, South Africa can justifiably dream of toppling India off their perch.
India's Test squad: Virat Kohli (capt), Mayank Agarwal, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (vc), Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant (wk), Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Shubman Gill
South Africa's Test squad: Faf du Plessis (capt), Temba Bavuma (vc), Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock (wk), Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Senuran Muthusamy, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Vernon Philander, Dane Piedt, Kagiso Rabada, Rudi Second
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