History is against the tourists based on their previous visits to Newlands, but this is a very different Indian side. To say that Newlands is a South African cricket fortress is something of an understatement. In 30 Tests at the picturesque venue since the end of apartheid-era isolation, South Africa have won 20 and lost only four, all of them to Australia. The Proteas’ four matches against India have seen two wins, the last of them 11 years ago when South Africa overcame a 41-run first-innings deficit to win by five wickets on the final afternoon of the series.
This, though, is a very different Indian team. Under Virat Kohli’s leadership, they have won 20 and lost just three of 32 Tests, and the visitors arrived in the Southern Cape on the back of nine consecutive series wins. This is the first of three overseas series that will define the team’s legacy – tours of England and Australia follow in the next 12 months.
India’s team management opted to scrap a warm-up game in favor of focused training sessions. The team has pace bowling depth to call on but comes up against a strong South African side in which the fit-again Dale Steyn may not even get a game. If he does play – and neither Faf du Plessis, the captain, nor Ottis Gibson, the coach, would confirm the same – South Africa’s greatest fast bowler will be part of a four-man pace battery alongside Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, and Morne Morkel. Keshav Maharaj, the left-arm spinner who has made such an impressive start to his Test career, will also play, with South Africa likely to trust six batsmen to do the job.
One of them will be AB de Villiers, who returned to the Test fray in the recent day/night Test against Zimbabwe. With Quinton de Kock having recovered from a hamstring problem, there may not be a place for Temba Bavuma in the line-up.Du Plessis spoke of wanting to “settle scores” after South Africa were thrashed 3-0 in India in 2015, and the home side hopes that they will get a pitch where the ball nibbles around a bit at pace. But with Cape Town going through the worst drought in a century and the sun beating down, it’s hard to see how much of the grass on the surface will survive until the first day’s play.
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If anything, a seam-friendly surface will encourage India, whose two victories on South African soil – at the Wanderers in 2006, and in Durban in 2010 – came in conditions where the hosts were expected to dominate. India has come to South Africa with their most well-rounded fast-bowling unit. Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma should be accompanied by Bhuvneshwar Kumar at Newlands, with Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah also in contention. Hardik Pandya, who has already struck a Test century, offers another seam option if he plays in place of Rohit Sharma. India has come a long way since the dark days of 1996/97 when they were skittled for 100 and 66 in Durban. On the last two visits to Newlands, they had chances to win. But timid second-innings batting cost them in 2006/07, and four years later, Jacques Kalli’s stamped his class on proceedings with a second-innings 109 – bruised rib and all – to follow 161 in the first.
On both occasions, the lack of bowling depth cost India dearly. That shouldn’t be a problem this time around, and the clash between the teams ranked No.1 and No.2 in the ICC rankings promises to be one to savor.