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India vs South Africa: Focus on Virat Kohli the Batter, Captain as India Aim to Conquer the ‘Final Frontier’

To deploy an expression made famous by Steve Waugh when he led Australia to India in 2000-01, the impending Test series against South Africa represents the `final frontier’ for India to conquer. While Waugh, however, had failed in his attempt in as India staged a marvelous come-from-behind win, Virat Kohli will be hoping that his campaign will be memorable for a positive outcome.

South Africa’s return to international cricket after more than two decades in isolation because of the reprehensible apartheid policy was prompted by India after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, marking the collapse  white supremacist government fell, In almost three decades of playing each other,

India’s captain has recently been mired in controversy over the white ball captaincy being taken away from him, leading to a confrontation with BCCI President and former captain Sourav Ganguly on the eve of the team’s departure for this tour. How that story unravels remains to be seen. But Kohli can’t spend time mulling on this. There is far too much at stake for him, as batsman and captain, in the three Tests.

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His protracted lean patch (no Test century in the last two years) have made concerns in the Indian cricket establishment go from the silent to voluble. From the time he played under-19 cricket, Kohli has won plaudits from fans and experts alike, and was seen favaourably by the powers that be in Indian cricket.

In fact, from the time he became full time Test captain in 2015, and subsequently for T20 and ODIs too in 2017, he was pormoted as the `face’ of Indian cricket. His writ ran large and he could not put a foot wrong. Even when he was drawn into controversy, like in the fall out with chief coach Anil Kumble, Kohli suffered no damage.

However, failure to win an ICC tournament, compounded by a dip in batting form, left him vulnerable enough for the BCCI to take away the white ball captaincy from him and could extend to captaincy in red ball cricket too if the results are adverse in the upcoming Test series against South Africa.

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This must seem harsh on a magnificent player who, barring the drought of big scores in the last two years, has been the toast of not just India, but the entire cricket world. Kohli’s dazzling skills put him in the uppermost echelons of great batsmen, and his captaincy record – even if he has not won an ICC title – would be the envy of any Indian captain before him.

However, as Indian cricket history shows, once the BCCI gets disenchanted with a player, the slide can be rapidly downhill, arrested only by extraordinary performances and results. This is what Kohli will have to show in this series to stifle the skeptics. He has to rediscover his mojo and start scoring runs. Big runs.

On the previous tour to South Africa, he was the preeminent batsman on either side, ahead of even A B de Villiers and Hashim Amla, playing with controlled aggression, stamping his authority and class. India failed to win that series because there was little support for him from others in the top order.

Nonetheless, Kohli rose to be recognized as the world’s best batsman for his dashing strokeplay and never-say-die attitude, taking the fight to the opponents in thrilling fashion.  If he can strike that kind of form this time, prospects of India winning the series enhance considerably. This would boost Kohli’s stature as captain sky high too. He faces the sternest test yet in his career. In batting and leadership, he will have to show mettle and character.

Kohli will be the centre of attention, but he is not the only one from the Indian team under pressure. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have been under duress for their lack of runs, the latter even more, which caused the Test vice captaincy to move from him to Rohit Sharma, and in his absence, K L Rahul.

Both in their mid-30s, Puajara and Rahane have younger batsmen snapping at their heels for places in the Indian team. A poor series – Rahane may not even be in the playing XI for the first Test – could exhaust the patience of the selectors. More crucial is the short-term impact, for India need runs, especially from their most experienced batsmen to put the South Africans to severe test. Remember, there is no Rohit Sharma, easily India’s best batsman in the last couple of seasons, which increases the onus on Kohli, Pujara, Rahane and also Rahul.

In the 2018 series, there was no worthwhile consistent contribution from top order batsmen to support Kohli’s virtuosity which allowed the South Africans to win the series despite splendid bowling by the Indians. In none of the three Tests India could surpass 250. Such meagre scores were hardly enough to defend and if India still won one Test, it redounds to the credit of the bowlers and Kohli.

The Indian attack this time is even more experienced and in good form. Jasprit Bumrah, who made his debut in 2018, is a front-ranking pace bowler in the world. Mohamed Shami is only a whit behind. As a pair they can be deadly. Add the dynamic Mohamed Siraj who has been so impressive in the last 12 months, and India’s pace attack looks far more potent than in 2018.

Veterans Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav, along with Shardul Thakur, the man with the golden arm, are also in the squad which gives the team management multiple options in fast bowling. In spin, without Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin is first choice. Perhaps he would have been this even if Jadeja was on tour for Ashwin has been in brilliant wicket-taking form in the past couple of years and has never looked hungrier for success.

The Proteas appear weaker this time – at least on paper — than at any other playing against India. Exceptional players like A B de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Vernon Philander who were present in 2018, have since retired, Faf du Plessis doesn’t play this format any more. Replacing such talent is not easy.

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However, South Afriica’s prowess in home conditions can’t be undermined. Their batting may lack depth of experience and sheer class, but the bowling is strong despite Anrich Nortje pulling out through injury at the last minute. Kagiso Rabada, lithe and tall, is a skillful, penetrative fast bowler with excellent control, picking up wickets and not conceding too many runs.

In the same age group as Bumrah, the two are in the race – along with Pat Cummins – to be rated as the best pace bowler in the world currently. This should be an interesting battle within the battle. Rabada gets support from Lungi Ngidi whose record in home conditions is impressive, and the tall Duanne Oliver, who returns to the national side after the collapse of Kolpak which had led to so many South African players fleeing for opportunities in England.

Some statistics become relevant here. India have never won a Test rubber in South Africa. In fact, only three Tests have been won on South Africa soil (one each on the 2006, 2011, 2018 tours), and only once (2018) have India been able to draw a series. This reflects the hardship quotient for Indian teams touring that country in the past. This is the mental block that Kohli and Co have to overcome if they have to create history.

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