Over a month since they first set foot in parched Newlands, Cape Town to kick-start their tour of South Africa, Virat Kohli and his troops return to the venue that served them a 72-run humbling. Back then, India, after a dream start, were decisively thwarted by a determined South African middle-order in the first innings. Despite taps in Cape Town running dry, the pitch showed little signs of dryness and Indian pacers claimed 18 of the 20 South African wickets that fell.
This is a different day and a different format though, one that India have bossed over for a while now. Their home dominance over the course of last year was built over the rather fortuitous discovery of two wonderful wrist-spinners, who have shown in their two outings that they don’t really need responsive pitches to be effective.
The results of One Day Internationals (ODIs) these days are determined in the middle overs, and India must thank Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav for snuffing the life out of South African batting in overs 11-40. In the two ODIs that they have bowled here, Chahal and Yadav have already picked 13 wickets between them; each of their wickets coming in this phase.
The Proteas have been unable to pick spin off the hand, and the slowness and loop with which Indian spinners operate have left their minds muddled with more doubts.
Not surprisingly, South Africa have ramped up their preparations against wrist-spinners; they employed five of them in net practice on match-eve. Problems such as these cannot possibly be addressed during a series, but if South Africa manage to lose fewer wickets in middle overs, they can perhaps target the fifth bowler, Hardik Pandya, with greater conviction.
Apart from spin, injuries have been the hosts’ nemesis in the series. Having already lost AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, they will now have to deal with the absence of wicketkeeper and opener Quinton de Kock. His absence means Heinrich Klaasen will get his ODI debut. A right-handed batsman with a List A strike rate of 90.11, Klaasen has 53 dismissals to his name from 42 matches.
De Kock’s absence means stand-in skipper Aiden Markram will open the innings with the experienced Hashim Amla, who will once again be the fulcrum of his side in the absence of De Villiers and Du Plessis.
The Newlands track, like most pitches in South Africa, offers good pace and bounce, and the inherent nature of the track, as seen in the first Test, is not likely to change much. What it translates into is another batting-friendly pitch, and the in-form Indian top-order would certainly not mind that.
The average score here batting first in last five ODIs is 311, and team batting first has won on each occasion. The last ODI here — played exactly a year back against Sri Lanka — saw the hosts plunder 367/5, with Du Plessis scoring a fine 185, the second-highest by the Proteas in the 50-over format.
While winning does paper over certain cracks, India would want Rohit Sharma to return to his big-scoring ways. After a dismal Test series, the Mumbai right-hander has looked in better control in the ODIs, getting starts in both his outings. His opening partner Shikhar Dhawan, who helped himself to a fine fifty in Centurion, feels Rohit needs just one innings to get back in form. India would be well served if that innings happen to be in Cape Town, the venue where he was picked over Ajinkya Rahane in the first Test.
The inclusion of Rahane in the playing XI, meanwhile, has sparked off a turnaround of sorts in India's fortunes. He played an important, and typically understated, hand in India’s win on a dangerous Johannesburg pitch in the third Test, and was part of the match-winning partnership with Kohli in the first ODI in Durban.
India have never won a bilateral ODI series in South Africa. The last time they beat Proteas in a two-nation 50-over series was in February 2010 — a series that saw the first-ever double hundred in this format. Virat Kohli was a part of that squad, and he would surely want that winning feeling after all those years. A win in Cape Town, where the hosts have won 28 of 33 matches, would mean India can’t lose the six-match series. More than that, it would reiterate their burgeoning reputation as an all-conditions limited-overs squad.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, MS Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Shardul Thakur
South Africa: Hashim Amla, Jean-Paul Duminy, Aiden Markram (c), David Miller, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Khaya Zondo, Kagiso Rabada, Imran Tahir, Tabraiz Shamsi, Heinrich Klaasen, Lungisani Ngidi, Andile Phehlukwayo, Farhaan Behardien