It’s almost three decades since India became the first country to tour South Africa in 1992 as the latter came out of apartheid bans. Since then, South Africa remains the only full-fledged cricketing nation where India is yet to win a Test series.
Australia had also remained unbeaten Down Under, but that was rectified in the 2018-19 series, and India repeated the 2-1 series win in 2020-21. This makes South Africa the “final frontier”—a term used by former Australia captain Steve Waugh to spur his team-mates on their tour to India in 2001.
India’s Test skipper, Virat Kohli, stripped of his ODI captaincy too after giving up the T20 mantle to Rohit Sharma, would like nothing better at this juncture than a historic win. He would also want to reverse the slide in his batting form which has now assumed serious proportions: he averaged below 20 in three Tests last year and below 30 in 10 Tests this year. Taken in conjunction with averages below 30 in the last two years for two other stalwarts in the Indian middle order—Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane—it hardly bodes well for India’s dreams of crossing the final frontier.
That will be the first test of Kohli’s leadership. Would he pick Rahane in the playing 11, based on his showing on the 2018 tour, or prefer Shreyas Iyer, who got a century and a fifty on debut against New Zealand at home last month? The selectors appear to have left the hard choice to Kohli, because it’s difficult to justify the continued inclusion of Rahane and Pujara in Test squads while upstarts like Ruturaj Gaikwad and Venkatesh Iyer pile up runs in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and domestic cricket, and experienced performers like Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan await their turn for regular slots.
Kohli could well include both Rahane and Iyer in the eleven, if he decides to field four bowlers instead of five. But that would be a reversal of a gameplan that has been working well for India of late. Five bowlers provide more variety, as well as the energy to finish the job after a long partnership.
India’s new coach Rahul Dravid will know this only too well. He made a masterly 148 in the first innings followed by 81 in the second innings at Johannesburg in January 1997, but saw South Africa escape with a draw. India’s spearhead, Javagal Srinath, ran out of steam after his two wickets had the Proteas on the mat at 78 for six on the final day. Leg-spinner Anil Kumble picked up the seventh wicket at 95, but ninth man Lance Klusener joined opener Daryll Cullinan in a 127-run eighth wicket stand to frustrate India. Weather and a dubious delay played a part, but the overbowling of Srinath in that series also took a toll on the tour’s last day.
The Karnataka speedster was a handful on the hard wickets of South Africa, but he became a workhorse instead of being unleashed in short bursts. He bowled 38 overs in an innings in the second Test at Cape Town. There too, South Africa went from 299 for six to 529 for 7 declared against the tiring Indian bowling trio—Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, and Kumble.
Skipper Sachin Tendulkar probably had no option but to keep turning to Srinath, given India’s limited pace bowling resources those days. The third pacer, Dodda Ganesh, was ineffectual. And then there was the slow medium pace of Sourav Ganguly. This was no match for South Africa’s four-man pace bowling attack of Allan Donald, Shawn Pollock, Lance Klusener, and Brian McMillan.
Today’s Indian Test team has no such limitation, thanks to a long line of pace bowlers emerging from the IPL. Success depends more on the choices made by the team management than the resources available. The two spearheads, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami, are well rested after their time off during the New Zealand series at home last month. They would be ably supported by Mohammad Siraj and Umesh Yadav, who were fast and penetrative against the Kiwis even on docile Indian tracks. All four cross 140 kmph in pace.
The question is whether the pacier Siraj and Yadav will find a place in the eleven or the experienced Ishant Sharma will be given another go despite going wicketless in the Kanpur Test against New Zealand. He was also wicketless on a helpful track in Headingley on the England tour earlier.
The bigger question for Kohli and Dravid is whether to play four pace bowlers, as the Kohli-Shastri management did on the England tour with success. Being able to rotate four pace bowlers, none of whom has to bowl a long spell and lose his sting, gave the attack an edge that was lacking on previous tours where late order partnerships often thwarted India.
Where wickets are tailor-made for pacers, it’s too much of a disadvantage to go in with three pacers, when the opposition has a four-pronged pace attack. Kohli found this out the hard way on his last tour of South Africa in January 2018, where India competed hard but ultimately lost the first two Tests at Cape Town and Centurion. While India made do with all-rounder Hardik Pandya as the fourth pacer, South Africa had four specialist pacers in Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, and Vernon Philander.
Finally in the third Test at Johannesburg, India included both Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar to accompany Bumrah and Shami, with Pandya as the fifth bowler. That was a man-to-man match with South Africa’s four pacers—Rabada, Morkel, Philander, and Lungi Ngidi—and all-rounder Andile Phehlukwayo’s medium pace. This time India won a low-scoring game on a pace-friendly track by 63 runs.
The lesson was to pick horses for courses and fight fire with fire. Kohli forgot that when he went into the World Test Championship final against New Zealand at Lord’s earlier this year with two spinners and three pacers, while the Kiwis had a five-man all-pace attack. He rectified the blunder against England in the series that followed, by fielding four pacers and only all-rounder, Ravindra Jadeja, providing a spin option. The Kohli-Shastri duo took flak from commentators like VVS Laxman for dropping the world’s best off-spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin, to accommodate a fourth pacer, but they stuck to their game theory in all four Tests to go 2-1 up.
The added complication this time is the unavailability of Jadeja due to injury. This leaves the team management with the quandary of deciding if Ashwin’s batting measures up with Jadeja’s for the all-rounder slot in the order, after the five specialist batsmen and wicket-keeper Rishabh Pant.
So, if the Kohli-Dravid management want to match the four specialist pacers—Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi, and Marco Jansen—South Africa will likely field, they have two tough questions to answer: Is Ashwin good enough for No.7 or will Rahane or Hanuma Vihari be needed as a sixth specialist batsman? And if Ashwin doesn’t qualify as an all-rounder, will a fourth pacer be more suited for a South African track than an off-spinner? The answer has been blowing in the wind since the win in Johannesburg with four specialist quicks in 2018.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.