Proteas assume reluctant favourites tag
The Proteas never seem to enjoy being labelled favourites for big series against top opposition, perhaps because of the ghosts of World Cups and series past.
The series against India starts with the Proteas firm favourites while Indian fans are hopeful of an upset and have every reason to be.
If India get blown away by Protea pace on sporting wickets it would not represent any sort of seismic shift in the balance of power in the game.
Teams from Asia have traditionally struggled in South Africa, Australia, England and New Zealand while that quartet seldom enjoy success on the subcontinent.
Beneath the seemingly laidback exterior of Virat Kohli, there is a man desperate to prove his doubters wrong.
This will be no luxury safari for the recently married batting maestro though, his ability against seam, bounce and swing will be tested and as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh discovered there is no place like South Africa for wicket hungry fast bowlers.
In this department may lie India’s hidden strength, they come into the series with three top seamers to lead the line in Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma.
Their challenge will be adapting their lengths to the conditions quickly in order to put pressure on a Proteas top order that hasn’t really piled on the runs over the last year.
India appear to have settled on all but one place in their XI with Lokesh Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan contesting the second opening slot.
Rahul’s technique should make him favourite but Dhawan has been a favoured son in recent times.
India will play just one spinner with Ravindra Jadeja believed to be recovering from illness, handing Ravichandran Ashwin an opportunity to improve on his dire record in South Africa.
Kohli’s men look set to play five specialist batsmen with allrounder Hardik Pandya slotting in at six.
South Africa have a few selection conundrums with skipper Faf du Plessis returning to the XI and Dale Steyn approaching full speed.
It is likely that Temba Bavuma will make way for the skipper and the bowling unit will remain unchanged.
The selectors may take a cautious approach to reintroducing Steyn but the quick looked great in training this week troubling the Proteas top Test runscorer in 2017 Dean Elgar with his pace and venom.
Other options available to the Proteas would be to swap Andile Phelukwayo for Chris Morris or leaving out the allrounder to keep in Bavuma however with workloads of the top seamers a concern this seems unlikely.
The renaissance of Morne Morkel will be put to the Test by India’s top order but if he can replicate his bowling in Port Elizabeth he will guarantee his place in the team for some time.
Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander will be among the first names on that teamsheet and for good reason, when South Africa have done well in the past 18 months it often has to do with them and exciting new boy Keshav Maharaj.
The bounce of South African pitches will give Wriddhiman Saha a challenge of a different sort as he seeks to cement himself as India’s number one gloveman.
South Africa are definitely favourites simply because India have had little time to prepare and acclimatize and Du Plessis’ men have been so very good at home.
He has only just returned to Test cricket but AB de Villiers will have his versatility tested as he assumes the vital number four position where he could be asked to rebuild or take on the attack to capitalize on a good platform.
Morkel has found a wicket-taking length and a shape that could allow him to finally shake loose the nearly man mould he found himself in.
Cheteshwar Pujara could be the man who holds the India top order together in a storm and he is a man with the temperament to succeed in SA.
Shami has to take the lead with the ball as the senior seamer and ensure that India are able to take 20 wickets in a match.
South Africa XI (Likely): Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis (c), Quinton de Kock (wk), Andile Phehlukwayo, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj, Morne Morkel.
India XI (Likely): Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya, Ravichandran Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma.
Hours of play (local time): 10.30 start (08:30 GMT), Lunch 12.30-13.10, Tea 15.10-15.30, Close 17.30
Match days: 5-9 January 2018 (5-day match)
Umpires: Michael Gough and Richard Kettleborough
TV Umpires: Paul Reiffel
Reserve Umpire: Bongani Jele
Match Referee: Chris Broad
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