Johannesburg: India’s first Test squad of the post-Sachin Tendulkar era features a host of batting talent for whom South Africa will be a major examination of temperament and technique.
This generation of cricketers, particularly batsmen inspired by Tendulkar get the chance to take up the baton for Indian cricket for the first time since his retirement, and for the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, the two Tests against the Proteas represent the opportunity to usher in a new era.
That trio will form the heart of India’s batting line-up for the two Tests, and their battles – albeit brief ones because of the schedule for the tour being curtailed – with Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morné Morkel will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the matches at the Wanderers and Kingsmead.
Ajinkya Rahane, who has played just one Test, is the front-runner to fill the No 6 spot, although with India having a two-day warm-up game before the first Test, there is an opportunity for Ambati Rayudu to stake a claim.
Veteran left-arm pace bowler Zaheer Khan has been thrown a lifeline, which may not come as good news to South African captain Graeme Smith, who has been dismissed six times by him in nine Tests.
Although it’s tempting to think Zaheer has been picked specifically to put some doubts in Smith’s mind, the most likely reason for his selection is the experience he brings to the bowling line-up.
The 35-year-old spent time in France and then Bloemfontein earlier this year, where he worked with the Proteas’ former trainer Adrian le Roux to improve his fitness.
He has shown good form in India’s domestic first-class competition, the Ranji Trophy, this season, taking 13 wickets in three matches at an average of 19.84.
Of all the fast bowlers Zaheer has the most intimate knowledge of South African conditions, having played in six Tests here and will act as a mentor for the talented trio of Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
Ishant Sharma, who has blown hot and cold for most of his Test career, also heads to South Africa, but will face a battle from the young tyros to make the Test starting team.
The India selectors have picked three front-line spinners in the squad – Ravichandaran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Pragyan Ojha – though only one of those are likely to feature in the starting team, with Ashwin, who is close to skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni and is a better batsmen than Ojha and Jadeja probably the favourite for the starting XI if India only go with the single spinner.
Yuvraj Singh, the player of the tournament at the last World Cup, has kept his place in a 16-man squad for the three-match one-day series which precedes the Tests, with this trip representing a final opportunity to maintain his spot in the side for the long-term as a host of young batsmen start to make a push for places ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
India’s tour of South Africa was originally scheduled to take place over the heart of the summer, but bitter squabbling between the respective administrators at Cricket SA and the Board of Control for Cricket in India has seen the tour reduced to just 27 days.
The first ODI will be at the Wanderers on December 5 and the first Test is at the same venue, starting on December 18.
Test: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ravindra Jadeja, Zaheer Khan, Ambati Rayudu, Wriddhiman Saha, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha.
One-Day Internationals: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Yuvraj Singh, Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ambati Rayudu, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Mohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra. - The Star