|Virat Kohli, at the Wanderers, on Wednesday
Calcutta/Johannesburg: This will be a test of character, but Team India seem to be up for the challenge.
Gaining in confidence with every series, India’s in-form young batsmen are set to be put through their sternest test this season when they take on South Africa in a three-match ODI series starting at the Wanderers, on Thursday.
It is an ODI contest with context but that has got nothing to do with the intrigue between the two boards that led to this tour being shortened. Nor is it just another three-match series between the No.1 and No.5 ranked sides.
This affair has a certain context, all of it pertaining to what happens within the boundary ropes.
For Team India, it will be an exercise to reaffirm faith in their young batsmen. This is the same bunch that has been busy lighting up cricket grounds with some breathtaking stroke-play.
Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, each have scored more than thousand runs in ODIs played this calendar year, each of them averaging over 50.
There can be two ways to look at this statistics. First, they have scored runs in India, England, West Indies and Zimbabwe, in different conditions.
Their confidence is sky-high at the moment and in their respective purple patches, all they can think of is playing the next match and batting on.
Their great run has meant that the Indian batting has started to look top-heavy, and this point is a bit worrisome.
In 31 matches this year, Suresh Raina averages only 36. In 21 matches, Yuvraj Singh has scored at only 21.23.
In the last nine matches (seven completed innings each) against Australia and West Indies, they have fared worse — Raina has scored at 22.42 and Yuvraj at 19.66, facing the same bowling as Dhawan, Sharma and Kohli, on the same pitches.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, too, has maintained his touch this year.
In 23 matches, he averages 66.90. Of course, the small print is that he has been not out eight times. But his conversion rate after getting a start has been good, with four fifties and a hundred.
It highlights the middle-order’s poor form, which South Africa will look to exploit. Particularly, when Team India is likely to play only six front-line batsmen. This will be a test unlike any other in the 11 months gone by, on pitches which will afford more bounce and are likely to cater to the hosts’ traditional strength — pace.
Coach Duncan Fletcher is hopeful of India living up to the challenge. “The way the guys have played recently, they’ve got a lot of confidence. Our batting seems technically equipped. The only thing is the experience. But this lot is confident, they’ve got no baggage and they really believe in themselves,” Fletcher said.
The hosts will be eager to unleash Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis at the first available opportunity. Both Steyn and Kallis have been included in the squad for this three-match series, after sitting out the third (and last) ODI against Pakistan.
South Africa lost that three-match series, a first loss against Pakistan at home. Similarly, India too have never won a bilateral ODI series in South Africa and they will want to take heart from their arch-rivals’ success.
For the Proteas, going up against the top-ranked ODI side, this is a chance to ascertain their own plans in this format after some patchy display in the past year.
In fact, South Africa have only beaten Pakistan in two bilateral series (out of three against this opposition) in 2013, failing to impress in the Champions Trophy and losing to New Zealand and Sri Lanka elsewhere.
After Gary Kirsten stepped down as coach, and AB de Villiers’ none too impressive captaincy run so far, the team is still trying to find its feet under Russell Domingo.
The failure to handle pressure and close games is all too apparent. It is a fact that they have just one win in their last eight games while chasing.
India (likely): Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav/Ishant Sharma.
South Africa (from): AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, JP Duminy, Imran Tahir, Jacques Kallis, Ryan McLaren, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Vernon Philander, Graeme Smith, Dale Steyn, Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
Match starts: 5 pm (live on Ten Action)