India’s belief that they can beat South Africa for the first time in a Test series here next month is very genuine.
That belief is not backed up by India’s record in South Africa, which is poor. They have won just two out of 17 Tests in this country. Rather, it stems from captain Virat Kohli, who even more than the haughty Saurav Ganguly, is a self-assertive sort who’s self-confidence has trickled into his team.
Self-belief is one thing, however. Having the means to fulfil that belief with the necessary skill and personnel is another matter. But India have built a team, and particularly a seam bowling unit, that’s capable of taking advantage of conditions in this country in a way that previous squads haven’t.
India have always produced excellent seamers - the likes of Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad and Zaheer Khan were always a threat on South African pitches. But when they toured here, they were usually the only quality seamers in the Indian line-up, so see them off and South Africa’s batsmen could thrive against bowlers of lesser ability and also make hay when those primary bowlers were forced to bowl more and longer spells.
Kohli will have at his disposal battery of high quality seamers who he can rotate throughout a day’s play, thus keeping them fresh and able to maintain pressure.
In Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami there are two bowlers capable of touching and even exceeding 140km/* . Ishant Sharma is well known here and while often criticised for not making a bigger impact in his time in the Indian side, his height and ability to extricate bounce from virtually any surface makes him a handful. Bhuvneshwar Kumar is a skillful seam and swing bowler.
They are strong and fit, something on which their skipper insists having witnessed previous Indian captains suffer when they’ve called on their quick bowlers for a third and fourth spell.
India had specifically asked that pitches for the recently concluded home series against Sri Lanka be prepared with their tour to South Africa in mind. That only happened at Eden Gardens in the first Test, where a green track greeted the teams, with all 17 Sri Lankan wickets which fell in that drawn match being picked up by seam bowlers.
Still, the tracks in Nagpur and Delhi weren’t to the fast bowlers’ liking. “The kind of wickets we wanted to prepare on before going to South Africa, we haven’t been provided with those kind of wickets,” Shami said in Delhi.
“So it didn’t go as per our plans. But it’s a good thing that on these kind of tracks, you need to work hard as a bowler. These kind of tracks test your fitness as you get to bowl long spells. Overall as a bowling unit, all bowlers have together bowled more than 100 overs (130 overs). So you can see how much effort we are putting in.”
In addition, there is young all-rounder Hardik Pandya, whose dazzling displays in the white-ball formats has seen him step to the fore in the Test arena too, and who provides a useful added seam bowling option, which will help to balance any potential starting XI.
Kohli, according to Indian watchers, prefers playing five bowlers, especially away from home, which means Pandya is almost certain to start in the first Test at Newlands on January 5.
Three out of Yadav, Kumar, Shami and Sharma will most likely play the slightly later than normal “New Year’s Test” with Ravi Jadeja a better chance than Ravi Ashwin of starting as the spin option given his better batting and fielding.
India have noted South Africa’s less than stellar performances with the bat in the last 12 months.
“Our fast bowling unit is much better now. I think they’ll do the damage,” said an upbeat Cheteshwar Pujara after India had won their ninth consecutive series last week by beating Sri Lanka.
“At one point what the South African batting used to be and what it is now, there is a difference. That will give us some advantage.”
To a degree he’s right. South Africa are still trying to settle on a new opening combination; Hashim Amla isn’t the player who slayed India in two Tests in 2010; and AB de Villiers will not have played Test cricket for nearly two years.
But for all the confidence about their fast bowling depth, India’s batsmen still need to score runs here and do so against a South African attack that may feature Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morné Morkel and Kagiso Rabada.
Kohli and Pujara were both successful here in the curtailed series in 2013, but another of the successes from that tour, vice captain Ajinkya Rahane, is averaging just 34.62 this year, having scored just one century in 11 Tests in 2017.
Kohli has bemoaned the fact that his team have not had sufficient time to prepare for SA - a gripe he should have taken up with the BCCI, which shoehorned a series with Sri Lanka onto the calendar at the last minute - and they won’t get much out of playing a two-day tour game in Paarl on a flat, slow pitch.
Nevertheless, a fascinating series is in the offing, and even if their bowlers haven’t been tested outside of India, the quality of the quick bowlers at Kohli’s disposal probably justifies their confidence.
India squad: Virat Kohli (capt), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane (vc), Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Parthiv Patel, Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah
Test schedule: 1st Test, Jan 5-9, Newlands; 2nd Test, Jan 13-17, SuperSport Park; 3rd Test, Jan 24 -28, The Wanderers