Unchartered territory is an expression that is fast losing its relevance when it comes to Indian cricket. For years, areas which were virtually no-go zones, have been turned into free-access rides by Virat Kohli and his band of fearless warriors.
Fort Australia has fallen, a win in England is no longer a once-in-25-years experience, and now it’s about conquering South Africa. Centurion, a bastion of the Proteas since their readmission into international cricket in the early 1990s, has been smashed and the juggernaut moves to Wanderers for the second Test, a venue where India have never lost a Test match.
Kohli couldn’t have asked for a better setting to realize a dream that germinated when he won a dead rubber on a treacherous Wanderers track four years ago. The Indian team started to believe that foreign shores could be conquered, and here they are, on the verge of putting a seal on their world domination in Test cricket over the last four years.
The track on offer, as coach Rahul Dravid pointed out on the eve of the game, is a “result pitch”. It’s understood that there is some grass and India will once again unleash their battery of four pacers to deal with any hint of South African resurgence.
Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami were brilliant in the first Test and the only cause of concern was the ankle sprain that the Bumrah suffered in the first innings. He came back to bowl superbly after that and it would be interesting to see if both Shami and Bumrah have recovered enough from the rigours of the first Test to be ready for this one. Just in case, any one of them is not 100 %, India have a ready-made back-up in Umesh Yadav, who bowled well in the limited opportunities he got in England.
While most pieces fell into place for India in the first Test, the slight concern was the form of Cheteshwar Pujara, who didn’t get runs at the crucial No. 3 slot. But Dravid indicated that the team management isn’t too worried about it. “Pujara understands the importance of a big score and is working hard. He may well get the runs soon enough,” Dravid said.
Ajinkya Rahane and Virat Kohli, too, didn’t get the big scores, but they didn’t exactly struggle and the coach felt there’s not much of a concern. What worried him just a tad was the fact that India got all out for 325 in the first innings after being 272-3 after Day 1. “That’s something we should guard against,” Dravid said.
There are a few scattered thunderstorms that are predicted over the next five days, but the Indian team isn’t focusing on the uncontrollables. Also the fact that they won the first Test well within time, despite a day’s wash-out should give Kohli the confidence.
There’s another plus for India and that’s the turmoil that the South African team is in. They got into the series with hardly any red-ball practice and that showed in their game. That was followed by the retirement of senior wicketkeeper batsman Quinton de Kock, which means the batting will be even more short on experience. Kyle Verreynne, with a two-Test experience, will be his replacement, but it isn’t easy against a quality Indian attack on a challenging pitch for a newcomer.
South Africa’s only area of strength is their pace attack led by Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi. Both were good in Centurion and paceman Duanne Olivier, who missed the first Test due to Covid and fatigue-related issues, could also be back, while captain Dean Elgar suggested that left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj will retain his spot.
But Dravid made it clear that India aren’t taking anything for granted and have enough respect for South Africa.