Cricket

With history in sight and Virat Kohli back, India seek batting improvement against resurgent Proteas in Cape Town

"Test Cricket. Stupid sport. Protect it at all costs".

The Barmy Army tweeted sharing a video of a nervous Ben Stokes burying his head inside his T-shirt as James Anderson faced the final over of the fourth Test, from Steve Smith, amid a sea of emotions at the buzzing Sydney Cricket Ground.

Anxiety turned into relief as Anderson survived to help England draw the Test and save them from the ignominy of a potential series sweep. The Sydney Cricket Ground was a theatre. The riveting Test once again elicited the old adage, 'Test cricket is best cricket'. Not just from Barmy Army but from thousands across the globe. And not for the first time in this new year.

Test cricket has been on fire since the start of 2022. There have been three different storylines producing three unpredictable results. A battered England salvaged some pride with a gritty draw against Australia in Sydney. A gutsy South Africa bounced back to draw level 1-1 by chasing down 240 against a world-class Indian bowling attack on a challenging pitch in Johannesburg. Underdogs Bangladesh pulled off one of the great upsets by winning their first-ever Test against New Zealand in Mount Maunganui to script history.

And the Test cricket theatre could continue this week as India take a shot at history against South Africa in Cape Town. With series level at 1-1, India have a chance of winning their first-ever Test series in the Rainbow Nation.

After a comfortable win in Centurion, India were jolted as a gritty South African side roared back with a special win in Johannesburg. While bowlers had a rare couple of off days, it was the batting that let India down in the Test. They could manage just 202 in the first innings and 266 in the second.

Overseas Tests have been about batting. Over the last few years, with the transition of the bowling attack into a world-class unit, the expectations have risen. The onus is on the batters to put up competitive totals on challenging wickets. Batting is one of the key factors that has been deciding which way the balance swings away from home for India. And it will again be crucial heading into the final Test.

There were individuals who showed fight in the batting department. KL Rahul battled it out in the first innings for a patient fifty. R Ashwin scored a valuable 46 down the order to take India past 200. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane kept themselves afloat with a crucial 111-run stand to launch a stunning counter-attack in the second innings, while Vihari, in his rare chance, proved his worth with a vital 40 to take India to a competitive target.

However, what India lacked was a collective batting effort. Batters would need to fire in unison in Cape Town. After the Johannesburg Test, Rahul Dravid stressed upon seizing key moments and stitching longer partnerships in a bid to perform better in the final Test.

India have received a huge shot in the arm as captain Virat Kohli is back for the final Test, his 99th, after recovering from back spasms which kept him out of the second Test.

Just like Dean Elgar did in the second innings, India would want someone to bat long. Convert those starts. There were fifties and fourties in the last Test. The aim would be to convert those into hundreds. It's a perfect chance for the likes of Rahane, Pujara and Kohli to break their century droughts. Pujara hasn't hit one in 46 innings. Rahane has gone century-less for 25 innings so has Kohli who hasn't hit a century in 60 international innings now.

South Africa has been going through a transitional phase, especially with their batting. But a relatively inexperienced batting line-up has averaged more than India at 26.06 runs per wicket compared to the visitors' 24.22.

As India head into the final Test, their last visit to Cape Town might be playing somewhere in the back of their minds. They were pegged back at the start of the series courtesy of a batting failure which saw them being bowled out for 209 in the first innings and 130 in the second, chasing 208. Only one batter managed a fifty-plus score — Hardik Pandya (93 off 95 balls).

Batting will hold the key, again.

Indian bowlers too would look to get back to their best. On the final two days of the last Test, it seemed as if they were trying too hard and erred in line and length which released the pressure. They were too short on the final day and would be looking to stick to their basics which have brought them rewards by building pressure. Bumrah had a rare poor match, going for 119 runs from 38 overs and taking just one wicket. He will hope that the special memories of Cape Town, where he began his Test career in an impressive fashion, will act as a catalyst in getting him back to his best in the decider.

India face a selection dilemma as well. With Kohli back, who do they leave out? Pujara and Rahane, who were under the pump, stitched a crucial partnership in the second innings. Vihari shined in the rare chance with an important unbeaten 40 in the second innings. So who sits out? Remember, Shreyas Iyer, who hit a hundred and a fifty in his two innings on debut, is waiting in the wings as well

Will they still leave out one of Pujara or Rahane? Or will it be Vihari who will have to warm the bench? Or Agarwal makes way and Pujara opens? Or they would look to strengthen the batting and leave out R Ashwin?

At Newlands Cape Town, the spinners have averaged 45.95 and have taken 22 wickets in the last five years while the pacers have averaged 22.95 and have snared 160 wickets.

Well, after the Johannesburg Test, Dravid hinted that Vihari and Iyer may have to wait for regular chances till the seniors are around and that might mean that it's Vihari who will have to make way.

The other dilemma is whether to go for Umesh Yadav or Ishant Sharma in place of Mohammed Siraj, who is set to miss the match with a hamstring injury he suffered during the second Test.

The South African bowlers' height made a difference in the last Test and Dravid admitted that the ball misbehaved a little bit more for them compared to the Indian bowlers because of the height factor. But Newlands track generally isn't as pacey and bouncy as the Centurion and Johannesburg tracks. However, with the stadium being next to the sea, it might assist swing and seam every now and then. So it would be interesting to see whether they go for the height and control of a rusty Ishant who's played only one of the last five Tests played by India and been facing injury problems of late or the swing and seam of an inconsistent Umesh.

The Proteas, on the other hand, would look to carry forward the momentum from the last Test. After a disappointing performance in Centurion, they showed a lot of grit and character to bounce back strongly in Johannesburg. Elgar showed the way with a brave 96 not out in the second innings to help the team chase down 240. Elgar has scored the most runs at Newlands than any other venue (708 runs from 18 innings at 50.57 with two tons and three fifties). The South Africans stitched crucial stands and mixed caution with aggression to put in a solid batting performance in the second innings. Elgar will again be the key. However, there is further scope for improvement for the other batters who need to bat long and deep and convert the starts.

South Africa don't have as much of a selection headache as India but there are chances that they might look to strengthen the batting by bringing in Ryan Rickelton or Sarel Erwee or even all-rounder Wiaan Mulder in place of Keshav Maharaj, who bowled just two overs in the entire second Test. However, on the eve of the Test, Elgar said that the Newlands track looks like a good Test wicket which might deteriorate on Days 4 and 5.

"What they want is to get us to play five days of cricket," Elgar said. "If we are implementing the basics from both team's point of view we will get to that journey. But I also think the mere factor that they've got a new groundsman....(he) is may be under pressure a little bit to prepare a good wicket. It does look like visually, you don't know what's going on underneath the surface, a good Test wicket. It's always a battle between bat and ball here at Newlands but if you apply your basics and discipline you are going to get success forward."

Elgar also hinted that the Proteas might not look to make too many changes and with the pitch predicted to deteriorate they might just play Maharaj again.

India are the No 1 ranked Test side and they were favourites coming into the series but now face a challenging task. They haven't won a Test at Newlands. They have lost three and drawn two of the five matches they have played at the venue. Though South Africa lost their last match at the venue against England two years ago, they have a decent record there and have lost just four Tests in the last 27 years, winning 23 and drawing five of the 32 matches.

In a way, it's a match of milestones. If India win, they will win their first-ever Test in Cape Town. Their first-ever series in South Africa. And Virat Kohli will become the captain with the most Test wins against South Africa (nine). For South Africa, it's not about numbers, it's more about emotions and pride. And there's no one better than Elgar embodying this fight.

"This Test is potentially the biggest we've had in 10-15 years," Elgar said.

Asked how big the series win would be for the Proteas, Elgar said. "It would be the biggest win in my Test playing career so far. Obviously, that comes with leadership and captaincy now. And from the players' point of view, it would be massive for us. We've put in so much hard work over the last few months, and we've actually been playing pretty good cricket up until now but we've not had a lot of things go our way. You need some momentum on your side. We've been doing everything right. We've been ticking the boxes as best as we can."

"Winning this series 2-1 is huge. Beating World No 1 even though it's in your own backyard it's still going to speak a massive amount for our player's group going forward and the Proteas badge."

With India looking to conquer the final frontier and resurgent South Africa aiming to surpass expectations, a fascinating finale awaits at Cape Town.

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Updated Date: January 11, 2022 09:26:05 IST

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