South Africa vs India: Three Key Match-Ups For The First Test

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 6 : Kagiso Rabada is congratulated by Keshav Maharaj of South Africa after the dismissal of Keaton Jennings of England during the third day of the 4th Investec Test match between England and South Africa at Old Trafford cricket ground on August 6, 2017 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Philip Brown/Getty Images)

For the past few months the focus of the cricketing world has been centred around the Ashes. As that series now draws to a close, after a dull Fourth Test at the MCG, most of the attention is shifting to India’s tour of South Africa. India had a dominant 2017, winning each of their Test series and only losing one match in the process. A large part of their success, though, can be attributed to the fact that India played every Test series at home, bar a brief trip to Sri Lanka. However, in the upcoming year India will not have the comfort of home conditions as they begin a series of tough overseas trips.

Their first tour is to South Africa, where they will play three Tests, six ODIs and three T20s. This poses a huge threat to India’s winning streak. Although they go into the series as the number one ranked side, their hosts are sitting in second position and eager to close the gap. South Africa displayed their intent with a brutal victory over Zimbabwe, dispatching them inside two days. Aiden Markram led the way with the bat, while South Africa’s seamers took all ten of Zimbabwe wickets in the first innings inside 30 overs.

This is poised to be a thrilling series, with some of the most talented cricketers in the world on display. There are going to be several battles among them which will define how the series starts out. Arguably the most important is Indian captain Virat Kohli’s handling of the in-form South African seamers.
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Virat Kohli vs The South Africa Pace Attack

Over recent years Virat Kohli has the earned reputation of being somewhat a “flat-track bully”, scoring prolifically in the subcontinent but failing in swinging conditions. A prime example of this is his disastrous tour of England in 2014, where he averaged 13 in five Tests. However, Kohli was his dominant himself when he last toured South Africa in 2013/4. In that series Kohli scored 272 runs in two Tests, with scores of 119, 96, 46 and 11. Kohli also looked in great touch in the Champions Trophy (held in England) last year, hitting the joint most fifties and averaging well over 100. Admittedly the red ball is a much greater challenge, but the conditions were certainly symptomatic of what we can expect in South Africa. Kohli will have to dig deep and find form again after missing India’s last series for personal reasons. India rely heavily on Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli and if they fail in these conditions, the series could rapidly become one-sided.
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Meanwhile, the South African pace attack are in ominous form. Kagiso Rabada arguably poses the biggest threat to Kohli. Rabada took the second most Test wickets last year and had the most out of any fast bowler, claiming 57 wickets in eleven Tests. The South African quick made his debut in 2015, during South Africa’s tour of India and claimed Virat Kohli as his first Test wicket. Since then Rabada has grown as a player and has rapidly risen to being the second ranked Test bowler in the world. If anyone can expose Kohli’s weakness it will be Rabada, having the perfect combination of pace, bounce and swing. When you also see that he is supported by Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn it is hard to think of a better seam attack in the world. Kohli could be found out by them and the Indian top order could really struggle against this talented attack.
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Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja vs Overseas Conditions 

The current ICC Test rankings have India’s spin twins Ashwin and Jadeja as the fourth and third best bowlers in the world. Like the fortunes of India, the majority of their recent success is down to the spin-friendly conditions of the subcontinent. In particular, Ashwin’s overseas record is particularly poor. Indeed, the last time he toured South Africa Ashwin played just one game and failed to pick up a wicket, going for 108 runs in the Test. When India travelled to England and Australia, Ashwin’s form was poor as well, averaging 34 in England and close to 50 down under. Jadeja’s record is also sub-par, but he had rather more success in South Africa last time round.

India rely heavily on these two and it is likely that only one will start, unless it looks to be a sharp turner. If Ashwin or Jadeja struggle and don’t fire, there will be lots of pressure on the Indian seam attack to deliver. This is the first series in several years where India’s seamers will have to take the lead and do the damage, and their pace attack is certainly not their forte. As a result, it could be a painful series for India if Ashwin fails to overcome his woes outside the subcontinent. They have been the key to India’s success and if they fire could pose a threat to South Africa’s top order, who struggled against them in India.
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Newlands Curator vs The Weather

It is a relatively short Test match series, with only three Tests being played, making every Test important and decisive. In terms of momentum for the rest of the series, there is no Test as crucial as the first. However, at the moment the curator in Cape Town has a serious battle against the weather on his hands. There has been a disastrous drought recently, with only a few rain showers over the past few months. It has been one of the worst droughts in South Africa for around a hundred years. Therefore, the curator must be struggling to produce a lively, grassy pitch as South Africa aim to. Manually watering the pitch, rather than relying on the weather, can be a risky business as it is easy to overcompensate. If the curator fails to achieve a green top, it could actually play into India’s hands as it would resemble and dry subcontinent pitch. One of the biggest difficulties of playing abroad is the foreign pitches, but the weather in Newlands could diminish this factor.

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