India look to breach another fortress as they take on transitioning South Africa

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Preview

Both teams possess potent bowling line-ups, but it’s difficult to judge their batting units before the series begins

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Cumulatively, South Africa and India have played a total of 18 Tests this year; South Africa have played only five of those, with the last one at home coming against Sri Lanka in January. Between then and now, South Africa cricket has been a tumultuous, even divisive space; enquiries into systemic racism have been centrestage this year, with not even VIP names, including some associated with the current team, escaping scrutiny as the push for justice reaches a vital speed.

India, meanwhile, have played in four marquee Test events in a year during which they had two legs of the IPL as well as a T20 World Cup to deal with. To speculate that there might be a few burnt out players in that squad wouldn’t be a big stretch. They’re carrying a middle order that has had no time to sort out issues they’ve been taking into every series this year, and contain some names who have had their share of off-field scuffles.

South Africa are a team in turbulent transition, and the Indian team a broadcast magnet squeezed to its bones. Both teams possess bowling line-ups to win Tests in these conditions, and both come with batting line-ups that are difficult to judge before the series begins. India have been better at Tests than South Africa over the last few years – and have particularly elevated their game since their 2018 tour – but South Africa haven’t lost at Centurion since 2014; it is hard to categorically say that any one of these sides has the upper hand going into the first Test, and that is a delicious proposition ahead of a big series.

Form guide

South Africa WWLLW (last five Tests; most recent first)
India WDWLW

Players to watch

The last time India toured, Kagiso Rabada had Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel for company. Three years on, he is no longer an apprentice. Rabada will lead this attack in what is by far his best format as a bowler. It has been six months since he last played in Tests, and he was Player of the Match against West Indies in that one. He will be keen to embrace this chance to bowl the lengths he savours.
Virat Kohli has been the centre of a media-driven joust with Sourav Ganguly over the last few weeks following his axing from ODI captaincy, and all eyes will firmly be on him when this Test begins. It will add to the narrative that he is now past two years since his last century and averages 28.41 this year.

Team news

South Africa are likely to use Wiaan Mulder as the fourth seamer and slot him in at No. 7 to add some batting to a thin lower order.

South Africa: (probable) 1 Dean Elgar (capt), 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Keegan Petersen, 4 Rassie van der Dussen, 5 Temba Bavuma, 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Wiaan Mulder, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Lungi Ngidi, 11 Duanne Olivier

KL Rahul hinted at a press conference that India are likely to back their five-bowler strategy.

India: (probable) 1 KL Rahul, 2 Mayank Agarwal, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane/Shreyas Iyer/Hanuma Vihari, 6 Rishabh Pant (wk), 7 R Ashwin, 8 Shardul Thakur, 9 Mohammed Shami, 10 Jasprit Bumrah, 11 Mohammed Siraj/Ishant Sharma

Pitch and conditions

The Centurion pitch can start slowly at times and then speed up on days two and three. At the moment, there is a lot of green grass on the surface, which will probably be trimmed. Scattered thunderstorms are forecast on the first and second days of the match. Thereafter, it is slated to be sunny and pleasant until the fifth day, on which thunderstorms are also forecast.

Stats and trivia

  • Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock are the only batters in this South Africa line-up who have made centuries at home in the last three years.
  • Quotes

    “I am not going to sit here and say they are not the best side in the world because there’s a ranking system for a reason. But the mere fact that we’re playing in our backyard gives us still the upper hand going into the series.”
    South Africa captain Dean Elgar assesses the balance of the series

    Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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