Beleaguered visitors eye consolatory win, avoid whitewash
Johannesburg : Faced with the prospect of a humiliating whitewash, a desperate India would be aiming to make the right selections against an unrelenting South Africa in the third and final Test, starting here.
The hosts have already sealed the series win, after winning the first Test in Cape Town by 72 runs and the second Test in Centurion by 135 runs. This was the first overseas Test series loss for India under Virat Kohli (discounting the 2014 loss in Australia as MS Dhoni was full-time captain back then). The tour has also also ended India’s streak of nine consecutive series’ wins since 2015.
The side, however, will not lose its no.1 Test ranking despite even if the rubber ends 0-3. As if responding to the severe criticism of selections so far, Bhuvneshwar Kumar is set to return to the side, after mysteriously sitting out the previous Test. Jasprit Bumrah, a surprise selection in both the previous Tests, is expected to be left out. While all five pacers bowled in the nets on Monday, a more certain hint emanated from the fact that four of them-Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami — batted in pairs.
The Indian skipper is expected to make at least one more change though. Since Sunday, when the team regrouped after a three-day mid-tour break, Ajinkya Rahane has batted the longest in nets. He has had four long practice stints over the past two days and is assured of a starting spot after Rohit Sharma scored 78 runs in four innings at Cape Town and Centurion. Despite Rahane’s anticipated comeback, however, it isn’t assured that Rohit will make way. India could yet go in with six batsmen and an all-pace attack at the Wanderers. They were certainly mulling this strategy 48 hours before the Centurion Test, so it only seems logical that this is again an option on a green pitch with ample pace and bounce.
Overall, the scenery has changed quite drastically for Kohli. Six months ago, he had led the side to an emphatic 3-0 victory in Sri Lanka, a feat never achieved by an Indian team. Now, he stands on the brink of another 3-0 score-line, fortunes reversed, as no Indian team has previously been whitewashed on the South African soil. Since 1992, India have visited six times and their worst defeat was by a 2-0 margin in a three-Test series in 1996-97 under the captaincy of Sachin Tendulkar.
Since 2006, in their last three visits to South Africa, India have managed to win or draw at least one Test and thus will be leaning on that historical fact to attain something of note in this series. In this endeavour, their record at the Wanderers Stadium should help. India have played four Tests at this ground — November 1992, January 97, December 2006 and 2013 — and are yet to lose a single game. In fact, they have one win here under Rahul Dravid in 2006, thanks largely to S. Sreesanth’s match-haul of 8 for 99.
More than 11 years later, India will be relying on a similar green, quick and bouncy pitch to do the damage as will be the case for this third Test. Pitch curator Bethuel Buthelezi had on Sunday said that no more grass would be shaved off the wicket. Until 24 hours to go for the first ball then, he had stuck to his word with a fine green carpet ready to welcome both the teams. While the ‘sub-continental wicket’ at Centurion was seen as India’s best chance to draw level in this series, the green track here is also a fair opportunity for the visitors. Kohli has never played the same eleven in 34 consecutive Tests now (dating back to Adelaide 2014) and this run is set to continue with the management intent on getting their team selection right on the money. On Monday, R Ashwin didn’t bat in the nets at all while the fit-again Ravindra Jadeja had a long stint. If India do play a lone spinner, the latter can be expected to make it.
Playing six batsmen and no spinner could also allow Kohli to field Hardik Pandya in an all-seam attack. Despite his lackadaisical run-out and shot-selection at Centurion, the all-rounder is still very much a vital cog in the plans. Meanwhile, Parthiv Patel — despite his ordinary showing behind stumps in the previous Test — is set to retain his spot after long net stints with both bat and gloves.
South Africa do not have any major selection headaches as opener Aiden Markram, who sustained a mild thigh strain during the second Test, is expected to be fit for this match. But they do have another four-Test series against Australia coming up and in that light, they might look to test their bench strength. Batsman Temba Bavuma has been ruled out of this match owing to a fractured finger, but all-rounders Chris Morris and Theunis de Bruyn provide adequate cover.
After sealing the series in Centurion, Faf du Plessis had pointed out that he wouldn’t like to take the ‘foot off the gas pedal’ as the Proteas push towards the no.1 Test ranking. Hence, it would be no surprise if they retain the five-bowler strategy, albeit with Chris Morris coming in for spinner Keshav Maharaj on account of the grassy and bouncy wicket that has been prepared on the home team’s specific request.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Hardik Pandya, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Parthiv Patel.
S Africa: Faf du Plessis (c), Deal Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyne, Quinton de Kock (wk), Keshav Maharaj, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Andile Phehlukwayo, Lungi Ngidi, Duanne Olivier.
Start at: 1.30 pm IST.