Author : Nayyar Abdul Rasheed
India shared the trophy the last time they visited South Africa. Will they be able to avoid a defeat this time?
For the first time in more than a decade, India will go on an overseas tour without any of the great four, or 5 in the squad. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag have either retired, or in case of Sehwag, been out of form for far too long to get a look in for South Africa tour.
India’s Test squad, selected today, has Zaheer Khan as the most experienced player in the squad, who hasn’t played a single international game this year. Though this team has won everything in its path since last 11 months, South Africa is expected to be its toughest challenge yet.
After a gap of 23 months, that counter which has been quiet for some time now, 0-8, is going to be on India’s back when they land in South Africa. It’s a good thing that India will play 3 ODIs before Tests. They’ve been slow starters on a tour, and it’s good for the young squad to get acclimatised to the conditions and opposition before the 2 Test matches.
It’s been some time now since Indian selectors made a horrendous call which they were once famous for, and once more they’ve shown brilliant judgement in announcing a very well balanced side consisting of India’s most in-form players.
Murali Vijay is yet to impress overseas
Shikhar Dhawan‘s excellent 2013 makes him an obvious choice. But the position of the other opening batsman has been in contention for some time now, despite India persisting with Murali Vijay.
Vijay’s domestic credentials aren’t under scrutiny, but the fact that his overseas average (19.08) is half his overall Test average (38.20), speaks volumes about how skewed his success as an opener has been. In the 2010/11 tour to South Africa, he came in as Gautam Gambhir’s replacement at Durban, but only managed 19 and 9 in two innings.
Even in the A-tour to South Africa in August this year, Vijay could only manage 48 runs in 3 innings, and has a lot to prove away from the subcontinent. Flat track bully may not be the apt description of him yet, but it’s fast becoming the tag for Murali Vijay.
The lack of options for selectors has also made Vijay’s life easier so far. Virender Sehwag has been woefully out of form in domestic cricket, and though Gautam Gambhir’s last few knocks would have given Vijay some cause of concern, it’s not a shocking decision to leave out the southpaw.
But Vijay can’t mess up in South Africa. If he does, and Gambhir has a purple run in Ranji Trophy, he could very well find himself missing the flight to New Zealand.
Another option which could be tried by the team management in case Vijay fails, and Gambhir’s good run is ended prematurely, is Ajinkya Rahane. The Mumbai batsman is no alien to the top order, but as far as Dhoni and co. are concerned, the think tank seems to feel he’s best utilised in the middle order.
Back in South Africa, Cheteshwar Pujara is less of a worry for India than most others
Despite the tag of a ‘young squad’, India’s biggest strength remains its middle order. Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni and to some extent Ravindra Jadeja, most believe, comprise a middle order whose success and failure will decide India’s fortunes on this tour.
For Cheteshwar Pujara, it’s a return to the country which he last toured with only a single Test and 76 runs under his belt. Though he scored only 19, 10 and 3 in his three innings, the vibes from the team management were positive, which reflected he wasn’t ill-suited to last in the conditions.
Having scored 1310 runs at an average of 65.50 in 15 Tests, Pujara’s second tour to South Africa with the senior team is a litmus test for the batsman’s overseas credentials. Most aren’t worried for India’s No. 3 batsman though, and it shows how assured his manner has been in making these runs so far. He was the captain and highest run-scorer in the A-tour to South Africa, and surely looks capable of facing Dale Steyn and co.
The hundred in Adelaide in 2011 was not only Virat Kohli‘s first Test century, but it also was the last time Kohli played a Test outside India. Though he’s had success both overseas and at home since then, his first taste of Test cricket outside India is not going to be a cakewalk.
It’ll be Virat Kohli’s first Test series outside India since the Adelaide Test in 2011 where he scored his maiden Test hundred
The same goes for Rohit Sharma, whose temperament is going be put to test in South Africa. It should be noted here that Rohit too scored a century in the A-tour in August.
India’s major worry in this middle order though, is skipper MS Dhoni‘s poor Test form outside the sub-c0ntinent. Since 2010/11, MS Dhoni has averaged less than 30 in 19 Tests in South Africa, England and Australia. The man has been dependable beyond an ounce of doubt for the team in crisis situations, but it hasn’t been the case against big teams on their grounds in the past few years.
Overseas, Dhoni doesn’t only carry a 0-8 history behind him, but also the knowledge that his own form has been sub-standard. For India’s most successful captain and one of the greatest ODI batsmen of our era, it’s concerning, to say the least.
The case of back-up keeper has been a revolving door since MS Dhoni took command. From Parthiv Patel to Dinesh Karthik, it’s one of the few uncertain spots in this team currently. For now, India has persisted with Wriddhiman Saha, who was in the squad when India last played a Test series outside home.
Saha was also a part of the India-A squad which toured South Africa, and remained 77 not out in the last innings of the 2nd unofficial Test, when apart from him and Rahane (86), no other batsman was able to more than 5 runs.
Ajinkya Rahane, as expected, has been included in the side and will be in contention for a middle order slot along with Ravindra Jadeja. Though Dhoni is expected to go with the all-rounder, Rahane provides an excellent option to strengthen the middle order.
Ambati Rayudu too, has been included in the squad after his impressive debut in Zimbabwe in ODIs, but is expected to warm the bench. More than anything, Rayudu’s selection in both ODI and Test squad indicate that the team management has him in the plans for the future.
For Ravichandran Ashwin, who is the fastest to reach 100 Test wickets in over 80 years, South Africa presents the first opportunity after a disastrous tour of Australia, which was also his first outside India, to prove his mettle as India’s premier spinner.
Pragyan Ojha has done enough to book a place in this squad, but is unlikely to play his first Test match outside the sub-continent, especially with Ravindra Jadeja providing that extra spin option along with his batting skills.
Jadeja remains Dhoni’s first choice for the No. 7 spot, with the skipper himself coming in at No. 6. But for a man who staunchly believes in horses for courses policy, Dhoni’s trust in Jadeja’s batting capabilities can be a bigger reason for his selection than his bowling, a decision which is expected to keep Rahane on the bench.
The biggest news however, is the return of India’s best pace bowler in the last decade, Zaheer Khan. It’s a move which comes right after he was denied a central contract by BCCI, but was driven by the need to add to a talented, but inexperienced pace attack India has.
India needs Zaheer Khan’s experience in South Africa, and he’s clearly back in good shape
The biggest positive from his 3 Ranji Trophy matches is him bowling more than 80 overs so far, and not just picking 13 wickets, but also looking in peak fitness. It doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan for India, the return of Zaheer Khan, but the many overseas tours in 2014 need his experience at the helm, especially when Ishant Sharma‘s form has taken a steep downward plunge.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami are expected to be the two other pacers in the squad, ahead of Ishant and Umesh Yadav. Umesh has been battling poor form of late, and after he was dropped from the ODI series against Australia, he found the bench to be a constant companion during the West Indies home series. It’s expected to be more of the same in South Africa.
Much has been said and written about the two young medium-pacers, but South Africa provides a hitherto unknown challenge for both of them, and is expected to make it clear where India’s pace attack truly stands.
Expected XI: Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni (c/wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Zaheer Khan, Mohammed Shami.
Overall, it’s the best side India could have assembled against the number 1 side in Tests.
From Virat Kohli to Rohit Sharma, from Ravichandran Ashwin to Mohammed Shami, it’s been a fairytale year for India’s youngsters. But South Africa tour finally provides them a challenge where their illustrious predecessors made their name.
It may not be a victorious Team India which may emerge at the end of the tour, but it’ll surely be much clearer in its view what it’s capable of after the 2nd Test in Durban.