Despite a deflating loss in the first Test match in Cape Town, the world's number one Test team India has a lot going its way heading into the second Test match in Centurion which starts on Saturday. Unlike previous Indian teams what toured South Africa with little reward, the current Indian side look unfazed by events of the past, and look focused on writing their own history.
The fighting spirit was best summed up in the pre-match press conference by rookie fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah, who was one the few bright sports for India in an impressive Test debut in the first match. Despite doubts being raised over his inclusion over Ishant Sharma, the tall pacer answered his critics in the best possible way: on the pitch, delivering incisive spells of bowling and giving the South African bowlers a very tough time. He said, "Confidence doesn't dent after one match. If it happens, then you don't deserve to play. Learn from the mistake you made and go forward. There is not a single cricketer who has not made a mistake. You keep learning and you keep improving all the time. We are trying to rectify our mistakes and move forward."
Talking of team selection, another missing name that raised eyebrows was that of Ajinkya Rahane. The Test vice captain is not in the best form of his life, but would have added experience to a batting lineup which was found sorely lacking in seaming conditions in Cape Town. India's limited overs vice captain, Rohit Sharma, was selected in his place, but did not cover himself in glory as the Indian middle order was left exposed.
“Well, we decided to go on current form. Rohit has scored runs in the last three Test matches that he has played, and he was batting well. We did that similar thing in the past and Shikhar as well. Look, these things can always be looked at in hindsight — thinking what if or what if not. But we decided to go with this combination and current form was definitely the criterion,” captain Kohli said when asked about the team's selection policy.
However, the numbers outside Asia for both the batsmen tell a different story as Rahane averages 54.66 while Rohit’s average is lower than 25. The comparison between both these batters isn't fair as both are different in every sense but Rahane was one of India’s top batsmen on their travels, so the stats make a strong case for Rahane's inclusion, possibly even at Ashwin's expense with the Centurion wicket not favourable for spinners.
The Rahane-Rohit selection debate is one that will rage on over time, but one selection headache that is possible clearer is that of the opening slot. KL Rahul has been in fine form in the white uniform, translating that into positive showings in T20 cricket as well. He is likely to make a return to the playing XI at the expense of Shikhar Dhawan, who struggled against the South African bowling.
The Catch-22 situation is, if India drop Dhawan or Rohit in favour of Rahul or Rahane, the top brass looks trigger happy, and if they stick with the same lineup and lose the second Test as well, the third will be a dead rubber where it will make little difference to the overall outcome.
For the hosts, fast bowler Dale Steyn will be a big miss. Despite assuring fans that he will be back firing in two months, the terrifying fast bowler will sit out the rest of the current Test series with a foot injury. Just two wickets away from the South African Test bowling record, Steyn will be eager to return to the arena, but will cheer on either Chris Morris or Duane Olivier, who will take the red cherry in his stead.
Opener Aiden Markram has described India as a major step up in his short Test career, and also has words of warning about the pitch. He said that the pitch at Centurion would play just like Cape Town, if not more bowler-friendly. It will be very difficult for teams to bat in the fourth innings at SuperSport Park as the average runs per wicket of 23.12 in the fourth innings at the venue is the lowest among all South African venues at which minimum five Tests have been played till date. Keeping that in mind, India might look to play Ishant as well as Bumrah and Bhuvi, sacrificing a batsman and placing great faith on Hardik Pandya's young shoulders.
South Africa’s win/loss ratio of 8.500 at SuperSport Park, Centurion in Tests is the highest for them at a home venue among venues where they have at least played 10 Tests. India are already behind in the series and these numbers tell that they need a dramatic batting performance to comeback at Centurion to remain alive in the series. It is clear that India need to deliver a memorable performance at Centurion if they are to make a comeback in the series, and picking the right playing XI will play a huge part.
Sports Flashes Possible Indian XI: Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma
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Vaibhav is an avid sports follower, die-hard Manchester United and Rahul Dravid fan. He loves watching all sports and has a passion for writing.