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India’s Rohit Sharma will be looking to improve his batting average in South Africa

FILE - India's Rohit Sharma raises his bat after scoring a century during the fourth day of the first cricket test match against South Africa in Visakhapatnam in 2019. Photo: Mahesh Kumar A./AP Photo

FILE - India's Rohit Sharma raises his bat after scoring a century during the fourth day of the first cricket test match against South Africa in Visakhapatnam in 2019. Photo: Mahesh Kumar A./AP Photo

Published Dec 9, 2021

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Johannesburg — Blame it on expanded squads because of bio-secure environments, but international cricket squads in the age of a pandemic don’t have as many surprises any more.

Basically selectors can choose everyone. The real debates arise when the starting elevens get chosen. It’s the same for India as it was for South Africa. They’ve picked a 17-man squad for the three match Test series against the Proteas that contains no ‘left field’ picks. It’s helped the Indian selectors that the side has been in such good form in the last 12 months. In that period, India has played 15 Tests — South Africa has played only six Tests — winning eight times, including a series triumph in Australia.

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There was no need for too much fiddling. They have players capable of thriving in all conditions, and boast a fast bowling unit that on paper matches the Proteas.

In fact, strange as it may sound, given India’s history in South Africa over the last three decades, Virat Kohli’s men go into the three-match series as favourites. The amount of Test cricket they’ve played in the last year is one part of that — compared to the lack of Test match time for the Proteas — another is the success they’ve had and the confidence that has imbued among the players.

The chance to create history will be a powerful source of motivation, particularly for Kohli. From Mohammad Azharuddin to Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid to Sourav Ganguly, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Kohli himself, all have led strong teams to South Africa, with Dhoni’s 2011 side’s 1-1 draw, the closest the Indians have come to winning a series here.

This current group is well equipped to change that. The batting is better than South Africa’s. The lazy stereotype that Indians can’t play the short ball was long ago flushed down the loo. Last season‘s amazing series win in Australia proved that. Kohli missed the last three Tests of that series due to his wife giving birth, but the rest of the Indian batters withstood the very best that Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Pat Cummins could throw at them. They won’t fear Kagiso Rabada and Co.

Rohit Sharma is a much better batter now than the one who fidgeted around in the four Tests he’s played here previously. His average of 15.37 in South Africa is something he’ll be desperate to change. In Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, India has a trio of players who’ve all made runs in South Africa before, while Rishabh Pant is a genuine match-winner.

Jasprit Bumrah leads the seam bowling unit, which will make life very difficult for a South African batting line-up that is searching for an identity. The Indians will throw a lot of different plans at them with Bumrah and Mohammed Shami extremely skillful operators, while Mohammed Siraj, who plays on passion, looks like he could bowl all day if Kohli allowed it.

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A bit like Sharma with the bat, Ravi Ashwin has plenty to prove with the ball in this country as well. He actually had very favourable conditions to operate in during the Centurion Test in 2018 when he bowled 70 overs in the match, including 39 in the first innings, but couldn’t do enough to prevent an India loss.

The Indians will feel that this is arguably the weakest South African team that any touring side from the sub-continent has faced. It’s as good an opportunity as any for them to make history and add to the stunning success they’ve had in the Test format in the last few years.

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THREE KEY PLAYERS

Rohit Sharma

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Since taking on the role of opener fulltime in 2019, Sharma has been one of the steadiest performers for India. Naturally he has plundered runs at home — including three hundreds against the Proteas — but he’s also got a half-century in Sydney and a hundred at The Oval, to show he can cut the mustard when India tour. South Africa is a place he’s not had success, and it will be the biggest test of Sharma the opener, because there is no more difficult place to open than in South Africa.

Rishabh Pant

His match winning knock in Brisbane, is one of the grand achievements in Indian cricket history. A thrilling batter, he is capable of changing the flow of a match in a very short time. Won’t be phased by the Proteas bowlers or South African pitches. Will be feeling refreshed after sitting out the New Zealand series, and having done the business in Australia, will be keen to tick off a series triumph in South Africa as well.

Jasprit Bumrah

Made his Test debut in Cape Town the last time India toured South Africa, and counts AB de Villiers as his maiden Test wicket. Picked up 14 wickets in that series , including a ‘five-for’ at the Wanderers, so he’ll know exactly how to exploit conditions. South Africa’s batters will have little respite from Bumrah; he’s quick, has a tricky action that involves a lot of wrist work, bowls a brilliant yorker, swings it, seams it, and has a dangerous bouncer.

India Squad:

Virat Kohli (Capt), Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant, Wriddhiman Saha, R Ashwin, Jayant Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj.

Standby Players: Navdeep Saini, Saurabh Kumar, Deepak Chahar, Arzan Nagwaswalla.

@shockerhess

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