How exactly do South Africa climb out of the hole they are in? Forget winning, how do they even grapple for a draw in the third Test in Ranchi, after losing the first and second Tests by big margins? They have competed well in patches in both Tests, but fallen well short on the whole, and their problems have been compounded because they are not restricted to form and conditions anymore.
Keshav Maharaj took five wickets in the first Test, scored 72 and 22 in the second, and bowled 127 overs overall, nearly double that of the next in the list: Kagiso Rabada, with 67. But Maharaj has injured his shoulder and will not play a part in the third Test. Aiden Markram had been searching for runs, and won’t score any more this series, after lashing out at a “solid object” following his second duck in Pune. He wasn’t among the runs, but his unavailability will hurt South Africa’s plans and hopes further. Not to mention selection, because they will now have to field two players they might not have chosen to.
Unlike in 2015, when they toured with a more experienced batting group, South Africa’s issues are not limited to demons of the spinning kind this time, because the pitches haven’t been the same as then. In Visakhapatnam, they were undone by Mohammed Shami in the second innings after a solid first-innings score of 431. Then, the Pune track had enough bounce and pace to remind Temba Bavuma of pitches back home – the Indian pacers used it better. “I honestly felt that it was quite suited to our strength as a bowling unit,” he said. That’s not what happened.
But South Africa could not dismiss more than five India batsmen, and lost 20 of their own, to slip to an innings defeat in that second Test. One school of thought says their batsmen need to apply themselves better. Another says their bowlers need to create wicket-taking chances because you can’t win a Test without bowling the opposition out twice. The truth is that they need to do both, consistently, because this Indian side does not seem to have any weaknesses at home.
The only thing not in South Africa’s hands, one they might be praying for, is to win the toss – that might give them a better shot at cramping India’s style.
As for India, they are rolling on like the juggernaut they have been in Test cricket over the past few seasons. The top-order batting has been so good that the lower order has been able to focus on their main job – bowling, and in Wriddhiman Saha’s case, wicketkeeping. It doesn’t look like anything will change, with Virat Kohli stressing the other day that with World Test Championship points up for grabs, there’s no question of taking the foot off the pedal.
India WWWWD (last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa LLLLW
In the spotlight
Bavuma is under pressure to score, as has been established, but South Africa need runs desperately from the others too – like Theunis de Bruyn. He has scored just 52 runs in four attempts and faced only 126 balls in the series. Eleven Tests into his career, he has the challenge of impressing against a well-rounded Indian bowling attack, and even if a good score – or two – does not win South Africa the match, it will do him a world of good.
He has been India’s premier fast bowler in the last couple of seasons, but Ishant Sharma is lagging behind in this series. He hasn’t bowled as much as Mohammed Shami or been used the way Umesh Yadav was in Pune, but still, just two wickets from 38 overs is below what the team expects from him. India will want more from their most experienced bowler in Ranchi.
India have no real reason to change their line-up except, perhaps, to suit the conditions, which might favour the spinners more than the quicks. It will give some hope to Kuldeep Yadav to come back in the XI in place of a fast bowler.
India (probable): 1 Mayank Agarwal, 2 Rohit Sharma, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Ravindra Jadeja, 7 Wriddhiman Saha (wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 and 10 two of Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Kuldeep Yadav, 11 Mohammed Shami
South Africa will have to make two changes: they are likely to bring back Dane Piedt, who was carted around in his 36 overs at an economy rate of 5.80 for the one wicket he got off a half-tracker in Visakhapatnam, and Zubayr Hamza, who has the experience of only one Test. But Hamza has over 4000 first-class runs with ten centuries, and his experience of playing against India A last month and in the warm-up match before the Tests could boost the batting line-up. If Lungi Ngidi is fit, they could also field him in place of Anrich Nortje.
South Africa (probable): 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Zubayr Hamza, 3 Theunis de Bruyn, 4 Faf du Plessis (capt), 5 Temba Bavuma, 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Senuran Muthusamy, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Anrich Nortje/Lungi Ngidi, 10 Dane Piedt, 11 Kagiso Rabada
Pitch and conditions
This will be the second Test to be played in Ranchi after the India-Australia draw in 2017. It was a nice batting track then and it could help the batsmen this time too, though there should be some turn as the game wears on. The skies have been clear in the three days leading up to the match. It’s been warm but not unpleasantly so, with some chances of thunderstorms expected in the next few days.
Stats and trivia
Under Kohli’s captaincy, India have lost only one Test at home – against Australia in Pune in 2017. He is also only four runs away from the 5000-mark in the format as captain.
Kohli has scored only one Test century this year, in eight innings, but his average of 77.33 is his personal best for a calendar year.
Quinton de Kock is the third-highest run-scorer this year with a tally of 575, behind Steven Smith (774) and Ben Stokes (627).
Stokes has struck the most sixes in Tests this year – 15 from 16 innings. With only three more, Rohit Sharma can go past him, having already hit 13 in three innings in this series.
“Every Test match is a good opportunity to contribute to the team, while batting and keeping. I’d made a hundred in the last match here, 117 I think, and that’s in my mind, how I approached my game, and even my keeping – there was an incident with [Steven] Smith at this ground, I remember that too.”
Wriddhiman Saha recalls the tumble-and-tangle with Smith, which left everyone in splits
“From a team-motivation point of view, we’re a very proud nation, so for me it’s very important that the guys don’t feel like there’s one week left in India, and almost already get on that plane to South Africa. The Test series that we’re playing now is for a Test Championship. There’s points still up for grabs, every Test match, so for me the challenge is more mental.”
Captain Faf du Plessis doesn’t want his team to lose hope with the series gone 2-0