India have breached Fort Centurion in their bid to conquer the final frontier. Now it’s over to the Wanderers in Johannesburg from Monday and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this is India’s fortress in a foreign land.
In their 30 years of touring history in South Africa, this is one venue where they have never lost a Test match and there have been milestones galore. Be it coach Rahul Dravid‘s first Test ton in 1997 or India’s first Test win in South Africa in 2006, India have always been a force at this venue where swing and seam bowlers have held sway.
Even Virat Kohli‘s dream run overseas started with a win at Wanderers in 2018 and the team is now on the cusp of history at its favoured venue. “While grounds like Newlands and Centurion help the shortish length of the South African pacers, the ideal Johannesburg length is fuller. That’s why India has had so much success at this venue,” Prasanna Agoram, the former video analyst of the South African team who worked with the national side for 11 years, told TOI from Johannesburg.
It’s still three days to go for the Test match to start, but Prasanna informed that the pitch has a lot of grass – for now. “Even today I was at the Wanderers… may be a bit of the grass will be shaved off over the next three days, still there will be a lot in it for the seam and swing bowlers,” the current high-performance manager of the Johannesburg men’s and women’s teams said.
The Indian team put up a complete performance in Centurion and everyone played a part. But Prasanna feels there could be a case for Umesh Yadav – who bowls a fuller length at a good pace – to play in this Test match ahead of Shardul Thakur. “The lengths that Umesh bowls and the pace that he generates are absolutely ideal for the Wanderers. I will be surprised if he doesn’t play this game,” the analyst who worked with the likes of AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis, said.
But it’s common knowledge that Kohli prefers allrounders in his team, because that lends him flexibility. Also the fact that the second Test starts within four days of the first may give Kohli something to think about the workload of his two premier pacers Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. Bumrah had suffered an ankle sprain during the course of the first Test and even though he gave it his everything after recovering, Kohli won’t take chances with his fitness even if there is an iota of doubt.
Could there be a case for Vihari?
The Wanderers pitch doesn’t always help spinners and given the mind-set of Kohli, he may just be tempted to go with four front-line pacers if all four are fit. In such a situation, it will be interesting to see if Kohli decides to play Hanuma Vihari ahead of R Ashwin. Ashwin did get the last two wickets in Centurion, but a spinner’s job at Johannesburg could be restricted to maintaining a good over-rate and Vihari could possibly do that with his 8-10 overs of offpsin in a day.
If Vihari plays, India will have the cushion of the extra batsman till No. 7, making it easier for Kohli to go for Umesh ahead of Shardul. “Yes Vihari has been here playing for the India A side and it won’t be a bad idea. But it is never easy to drop a spinner of the quality of Ashwin,” Prasanna said.
SA’s challenge to fill Quinton void
Quinton de Kock announced his retirement from Test cricket on Thursday saying that he wants to spend more time with his family. He would, as it is, have missed the next two Test matches, because his wife is expecting and he had asked for paternity leave.
South Africa are a little short of experience in their batting and it would be interesting to see if they go with Ryan Rikleton, who hasn’t yet made his Test debut, or Kyle Verynne, who has played two Tests, as the wicketkeeper.
“Rikleton is a good batsman and has got a couple of centuries at the Wanderers this season in domestic cricket,” Prasanna said.