India’s formidably consistent match-winners have a date with history in the New Year when they take on an out-of-sorts South Africa in the second Test here from Monday in pursuit of a coveted first-ever series win in the ‘Rainbow Nation’.
If the ‘Boxing Day Test’ was used to breach the Proteas’ fortress at the Centurion, the New Year’s game will be all about stoutly defending the ‘Bull Ring’ bastion which has been a ‘home’ away from home for the Indian team.
Also, it was right here in 2018 when the foundation of one of India’s greatest Test teams was laid with a solid win on a track that bordered on under-prepared and perhaps gave this unit self belief to take on the world.
They have been doing that for nearly four years now and are in no mood to stop.
For captain Virat Kohli, a Test victory at the Wanderers would reaffirm his status as one of the greatest Indian captains of all time in the traditional format with series wins in three of the four SENA nations barring New Zealand.
There cannot be a more opportune time to achieve the feat against a South African side that lacks Graeme Smith’s grit, Hashim Amla’s class, Jacques Kalllis’ manic consistency, Dale Steyn’s x-factor and Morne Morkel’s relentlessness.
To be fair, this South African team will find it incredibly difficult to compete against the current Indian line-up leave alone harbour dreams of a win.
Yes, they have a Kagiso Rabada, who is carrying the load, and Lungi Ngidi, who has looked good, but Quinton de Kock’s sudden retirement from the toughest form of cricket at the age of 29 is another reminder of a tough transition period that never seems to end for the Proteas.
So even if Ryan Rickleton, the 25-year-old dashing keeper-batter who is slated to make his debut, created some noise, he will find that scoring runs at the domestic level is very different from facing Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami with the red Kookaburra.
Even Duanne Oliver, likely to replace Wiaan Mulder who was out due to a hamstring injury in the first Test, will find it extremely difficult against a seasoned Indian batting line-up which would like to give a better account of itself compared to the first Test.
On a personal note for Kohli, it would be the ideal breathing space that he will require, now that it’s official that he is no longer the establishment’s blue-eyed boy after his much publicised battle of ”your truth versus mine” with no less than BCCI president Sourav Ganguly.
Kohli the batter is still insulated from the heat despite that missing ‘three-figure mark’ for last two years but ‘King Kohli is metaphorically ”wearing a crown of thorns”.
He didn’t face the media before and after the first Test and now head coach Rahul Dravid is literally living up to his ‘The Wall’ moniker as he is set to appear as a fire-fighter ahead of the second Test.
Having already made it clear that he won’t ever discuss classified internal matters, Dravid has already done one round of dousing the fire and on Sunday, he is expected to keep the topic of discussion to strictly cricketing.
However, it is very difficult to imagine that India would be ringing in changes to their winning combination considering Kohli’s obsession with five bowlers.
Even with that, India were docked a WTC (World Test Championship) point for slow over-rate and Ravichandran Ashwin will be as integral to the visitors’ bowling plans on a seamer-friendly wicket as their four fast bowlers.
Obviously, Shardul Thakur is the weakest link in this attack with Umesh Yadav being more potent but the Mumbaikar’s knack of picking wickets and also relatively stronger batting ability keeps him in the mix.
But on a lively Wanderers track, Umesh won’t be a bad option even though that could mean playing an extra batter, which hasn’t exactly been Kohli’s template.
As far as the batting line-up is concerned, unless anyone reports unfit on the match day, all the five specialist willow-wielders along with Rishabh Pant, whose run-a ball-34 was a special contribution in Centurion, will again feature in the line-up.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane won’t be dropped yet as Dravid will give them enough chances to succeed unless he shifts his faith on Shreyas Iyer and Hanuma Vihari, which might not be the case if batting coach Vikram Rathour’s last media interaction is to be believed.
The three big guns are due for a big score and it would be Proteas’ worst nightmare coming true if they all fire in unison at the ‘Bull Ring’.
It would then be a cakewalk for India.
Squads: India: Virat Kohli (captain), KL Rahul (vc), Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Jayant Yadav, Priyank Panchal, Umesh Yadav, Hanuma Vihari, Ishant Sharma.
South Africa: Dean Elgar (captain), Temba Bavuma (vice-captain), Kagiso Rabada, Sarel Erwee, Beuran Hendricks, George Linde, Keshav Maharaj, Lungi Ngidi, Aiden Markram, Wiaan Mulder, Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen, Kyle Verreynne, Marco Jansen, Glenton Stuurman, Prenelan Subrayen, Sisanda Magala, Ryan Rickelton, Duanne Olivier.
Match Starts 1:30 pm.