In a week’s time, the most anticipated series of the season could be all over unless India can do what so many believe is the impossible, and pull off a heist at SuperSport Park. The enormity of the tourists’ task is not just based on what we saw last week at Newlands – that South Africa’s attack in their own conditions is match-winning – but on the history of the Centurion venue. Every subcontinent side, India included, that has played there has been beaten by an innings.
SuperSport Park offers South Africa everything their sporting archetype wants: plenty for bowlers who can make even the most technically sound batsmen look like amateurs, but that isn’t all. The South African line-up enjoys the battle of being on a surface where everything except the crowd is against them. Newlands falsely claims to be the only stadium in South Africa with a decent support base; SuperSport Park has the same. While it may not be filled to capacity during the week, weekends and early evenings are packed with people and they are as vociferous in their war cries. There will be more so on this occasion because the ground did not get a Test last summer when Sri Lanka visited, and will not get one later this year when Australia reach these shores.
If that’s not enough to intimidate India, then all they need to think of is that the Wanderers is next on the schedule and although it is one of the two places where India have won a Test in South Africa before, between 2006 and now, Johannesburg has only become less hospitable.
India have the attack to properly challenge South Africa, and they did at Newlands but they need the batsmen to stand up to the hosts’ pack. Even without Dale Steyn, South Africa have the depth to keep their foot on India’s throat. The newly structured South African XI will likely have four quicks and six specialist batsmen, unless the spinner is deemed surplus to requirements and a seventh batsman is added for security.
Though SuperSport Park has a reputation for being one of the most difficult places to bat, there have been 39 centuries in the 22 Tests played there, including two double-hundreds. So run-scoring, while tough, is not impossible. South Africa already know that but India will have to believe it to keep the series alive beyond the next five days.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa WWWWL
In the spotlight
With Steyn out, Morne Morkel once again finds himself the most experienced member of the South African attack even though he is not considered its leader. Vernon Philander’s career-best at Newlands and Kagiso Rabada’s elevation to No.1 in rankings has left Morkel under the radar but at SuperSport Park, the spotlight belongs to him. Morkel has played at the venue since the start of his career and knows how to make the bounce on offer work for him. The batsmen may be watching for Philander’s seam movement and Rabada’s pace but Morkel will pose the real danger at the ground.
India need senior batsmen to step up and show intent and Cheteshwar Pujara will want to be that man. He batted for two-and-a-half hours in the first innings in Cape Town and had only 26 runs to show for it, while only scoring 4 in the second dig. If Pujara has been paying attention to what Ottis Gibson has been telling batsmen, which is basically that in these conditions they need to “get some runs before the ball gets you,” he will know that seeking to score quicker may be a better approach for the remainder of the series.
Ajit Agarkar would want Ajinkya Rahane and KL Rahul coming in for India for the second Test against South Africa in Centurion
Ottis Gibson’s wish for four seamers means that South Africa may only make one change with one of Chris Morris, Lungi Ngidi, Andile Phehlukwayo and Duanne Olivier to replace Steyn. The choice would appear to be between Morris and Ngidi, as both play their domestic cricket at SuperSport Park. While Morris offers pace, he has not played a first-class game since picking up a back injury in England in August. Ngidi also had back issues but took nine wickets on his return to red-ball cricket and has been in impressive form all summer. The six batsmen strategy will mean no space for either Temba Bavuma or Theunis de Bruyn.
South Africa (probable): 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 AB de Villiers, 5 Faf du Plessis (capt), 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Vernon Philander, 8 Chris Morris/Lungi Ngidi, 9 Keshav Maharaj 10 Kagiso Rabada 11 Morne Morkel
Virat Kohli said there was no need to panic, and didn’t suggest changes in the bowling combination or the composition of the side. The bowlers, including Hardik Pandya, look primed to get another go. India don’t seem to be in a hurry to drop Rohit Sharma based on one Test, which leaves the opening combination up for debate. Kohli said they were going to decide on that after the nets on Friday. Shikhar Dhawan’s alternative – if they so desire – is KL Rahul. A left-field choice could be Parthiv Patel. If used, Parthiv allows India to retain the right-left combination at the top and also opens up a slot in the middle order for Ajinkya Rahane to claim. On Friday, R Ashwin left the nets with an ice pack around his right shoulder after he was hit while taking throwdowns. The team management doesn’t expect it to be serious.
India: (probable): 1 Shikhar Dhawan, 2 M Vijay, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Rohit Sharma, 6 R Ashwin, 7 Hardik Pandya, 8 Wriddhiman Saha, 9 Bhuveshwar Kumar, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Jasprit Bumrah
Pitch and conditions
Traditionally, SuperSport Park is as South African as it gets. The surface offers pace and bounce and there is often swing; on the eve of the match it looked brown with no green grass on it. Things should be no different even though this Test pitch will be groundsman Bryan Bloy’s first since he was hired two years ago. Bloy journeyed to Cape Town last week, along with other members of the SuperSport Park logistics team to observe how Evan Flint and his team went about things and it will be interesting to see if they have picked up any tips on leaving live grass on the strip. Weather in the lead-up to the match has been hot and dry and seem to have burnt the grass on the pitch brown. Temperatures are set to soar during the match, likely to be in the early 30s with no rain forecast, although afternoon thundershowers on the Highveld can never be discounted.
Stats and trivia
South Africa have their best win percentage at SuperSport, with victories in 17 out of 22 Tests, a 77% success rate. They have only lost twice there, once to each of England (2000) and Australia (2014).
India have only played one Test in Centurion, on their 2010-11 tour. They were bowled out for 136 in the first innings and lost by an innings and 25 runs, though the match did mark Sachin Tendulkar’s 50th Test hundred.
Mohammed Shami needs one more wicket to reach 100 Test scalps.
“We prepare bowling friendly conditions because we want to win Test matches. The first priority is to win games. If we play in series where the ball dominates, so be it.”
Faf du Plessis has warned his batsmen not to expect things to get any easier.
“I don’t think we need to panic because of collapses. People need to apply themselves much better, whether you are playing five batsmen or six. Even if we are playing six batsmen, you can’t go out there and play loose shots.”
Virat Kohli says there’s no need for alarm after India’s batting at Newlands.