How SA will fare in the Test series against India is anybody's guess
How SA will fare in their three-match Test series against world number one India that starts at SuperSport Park on Sunday is anybody’s guess given the off-field controversies and how little cricket they have played in the longer format of late.
SA’s last Test series was a win in the West Indies in June, while it has been almost a year since they hosted Sri Lanka at home. The fact that they have only played nine Tests in the last two years adds to the concern — especially as India have featured in 14 in 2021 alone.
Added to that, with the off-field problems that have plagued the beleaguered side in recent times, not least the racism and discrimination allegations that have centred around coach Mark Boucher and director of cricket Graeme Smith, it is fair to say that the build-up to this crucial series for the coffers of Cricket SA has been less than ideal. It suggests they will be undercooked, perhaps mentally and physically, with some of their key players having barely held a bat or ball in any form of competitive cricket of late.
That is not a great place to be when you are coming up against a powerful India side that has made excellent strides when playing overseas — something that used to be their achilles heel. This generation of subcontinent stars embrace the challenge of travelling to foreign lands and unfamiliar conditions and meet it head on, rather than folding meekly into their shell as has been the case in the past. Over the last year they have won series in Australia and England, and will now feel they are primed to claim a first ever success in SA, which would be a huge achievement for captain Virat Kohli, still smarting from having been axed as One-Day International skipper.
The reason for their increased optimism is a vastly improved seam bowling attack, led by the brilliant Jasprit Bumrah, who should find enormous profit on the highveld wickets where the first two tests will be played. “He (Bumrah) is a world-class bowler,” SA captain Dean Elgar says. “If there is one bowler who can exploit SA conditions pretty well, it would be him. But we don't focus on one guy. India as a whole is a good side.
“They've been a pretty good side for the last two to three years and have toured very well of late.” Elgar says they have asked the SuperSport Park ground staff to prepare a “good cricket wicket”, which means an even contest between bat and ball. With so much rain around in Gauteng of late, their hand could be forced to a degree.
But even with an impressive fast-bowling armoury of their own that will likely include Kagiso Rabada, Ngidi and the returning Duanne Olivier, it does not necessarily mean advantage to the home side given India’s proficiency.
“There's always a little bit of spice in SA wickets, especially in the highveld region,” Elgar says. “I wouldn't see too much change. If you apply yourself as a batter, if you nail down your skills and your disciplines, you can really score runs in Centurion.
“Again, with the ball in hand you can exploit the conditions if you got pace and bounce and if you got some skill and be a little patient from a bowling point of view.” The loss of seamer Anrich Nortjé, who has been, statistically at least, SA’s best Test bowler in the last few years, makes it almost certain Olivier will make a return to the national side he ditched in 2019 for a county contract with Yorkshire. That will not go down well in some quarters, with the player so adamant that he would not play for the national side again that he framed his cap for display. But Elgar says that if SA are to be successful, they need their most in-form players on the pitch, with Olivier having topped the wicket-taker list in the domestic four-day competition.
“There's no bad feelings about what's happened in the past. I want to win cricket matches and series for SA,” Elgar says. “So, it's nice to have him back. He's learnt a lot playing in the UK. And so he's bringing a lot of knowledge and experience back into the changeroom, which is something that we need at the moment.
“He is a match-winner and if he can win cricket matches for us, I'm all for having him back.” As for the rest of the makeup of the SA side, it seems certain Aiden Markram will open with Elgar, with Keegan Petersen likely to continue at number three. Rassie van der Dussen, Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock pick themselves at four, five and six, but then it gets a little tricky. Wiaan Mulder should probably retain his place as the batting all-rounder, with Rabada, Ngidi and Olivier, if fit, the pace trio. Do the selectors then go with spinner Keshav Maharaj on a wicket unlikely to be helpful to him, or opt for another seamer? That may be the big question.
Quite incredibly, the last 25 tests played in SA have ended with a result either way and, weather permitting, that appears likely again. The last draw was a rain-hit game against New Zealand in Durban in 2016 in which no play was possible after day two. In what could be a low-scoring contest, one or two pieces of magic with bat or ball could swing the game one way or the other.
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