PTI Centurion, Gauteng, South Africa
Jan 12, 2018, 10.40 AM
Outplayed in the opening Test, India will have to resolve a few selection puzzles and respond better to the sharp bounce when they square off against a redoubtable South Africa in the do-or-die second Test, starting in Pretoria on Saturday.
India’s record of nine consecutive series victories will be on the line from tomorrow after the hosts took a 1-0 lead in the three-match series by registering a 72-run win in the first Test in Cape Town.
It is only the second match in India’s 12-Test long overseas schedule in 2018-19, and already they are faced with a must-not-lose situation in a bid to keep this series alive.
Surrendering a 2-0 lead to South Africa will not dent their No 1 ICC Test ranking, but that will be of little consolation when the post-mortem of the performance is done back home.
In order to get this Test off on the right foot, the Indian team management will be looking to get their selection on the money.
On Thursday, 48 hours before the first ball is bowled, Team India held an intense practice session at Supersport Park, which lasted just under four hours.
The usual suspects went about their job in a predictable manner. Cheteshwar Pujara practiced catching at first slip; Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma batted in tandem at the nets, while Ajinkya Rahane stood a mute spectator for a major part of this session.
He did face some throw-downs from assistant coach Sanjay Bangar towards the end, as did Shikhar Dhawan, but neither of them faced any real fast bowling.
KL Rahul, Murali Vijay and Pujara batted in adjacent nets, followed by Kohli and Rohit, and then Hardik Pandya and Wriddhiman Saha, pointing to another five-batsmen line-up.
It is in keeping with the team management’s belief that this was the optimal choice for the first Test, never mind a lack of practice or collapsing for 135 in the second innings.
KL Rahul or Shikhar Dhawan?
Rahul for Dhawan is the obvious change. Overall, the latter averages 43.72 overseas in 19 Tests, a touch more than his career average of 42.62 (29 matches).
Take into consideration his record in Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa in singularity, and this comes down considerably to 27.81 (11 Tests).
On South African soil alone, this plummets further to 18.00 in three Tests without a single half-century. His highest is 29 on the 2013-14 tour.
These figures are worrisome in themselves, let alone Dhawan’s poor shot selection in both innings of the first Test.
Rahul, in comparison, allows for more solidity at the top given that he is comparatively a more technical batsman.
Alternately, the Rohit-Rahane conundrum isn’t as simple.
The Indian skipper spelt out that this particular selection was based on form.
Despite Rohit’s twin failures - 11 and 10 - in Cape Town, it doesn’t make any sense for the think-tank to reverse this decision after just one match.
The other conundrum is regarding bowling attack. Hardik Pandya is a shoe-in after his previous showing, and it only leaves Kohli with four spots to play with.
This is where the pitch comes in. On Thursday, the track seemed a hard and bouncy one with only a little sprinkling of green grass, quite unlike the one at Newlands.
There is a school of thought that a track replicating the one in the first Test could have seen India dropping the spinner altogether.
Instead, the good bounce and lack of lateral movement might just play well for batsmen on both sides. It would surely bring in the spinner as the match progresses.
As such, it remains to be seen if Kohli changes his pace combination. On Thursday, Umesh Yadav batted and bowled in the nets with vigour.
Ishant Sharma, having recovered from illness, looked sharp as well. The duo has played 115 Tests, yet could again lose out to the one-match old Jasprit Bumrah if India retains their attack.
In comparison to the pensive Indian camp, South Africa seemed at ease as they went about practicing for the second Test.
The hosts’ only selection issue is in finding an apt replacement for the injured Dale Steyn. Youngster Lungi Ngidi is a contender to make his Test debut on home-soil, allowing the Proteas to replicate the four-man pace attack from the previous game.
Even so, all-rounder, Chris Morris is more likely to get the nod. South Africa are comfortable fielding a three-plus-one frontline attacking formula, yet Morris’ inclusion helps beef up both their batting and bowling.