There have been 22 Tests played at the SuperSport Park in Centurion since the first one in November 1995. Of those 22, South Africa have won an incredible 17 and lost just two. Australia beat them in February 2014 with Mitchell Johnson continuing his post-Ashes form. The defeat to England in 2000 was the infamous one in which Hansie Cronje convinced Nasser Hussain for both sides to forfeit an innings in a rain-hit match and thus manufacture a result.
In essence, it has needed a bowler hitting an exceptional peak to get past South Africa at this ground. Given that, India’s situation walking into the second Test that begins on Saturday (January 13) is even more precarious because they are in a ‘can’t lose’ position. A loss will mean the series is gone.
The loss in Cape Town, paradoxically, will give India both hope and cause some anguish. There’s hope because of the way India competed throughout the Test, and they know that not much separated them from South Africa. And the pitch for the second Test – while remaining fast and bouncy – is not expected to offer as much seam movement as the one at Newlands. The anguish will come from the ‘what might have been’ school of thought, because India will know that had they been a little tighter while bowling and batting, they could well have been heading into this Test 1-0 up.
India will have plenty to ponder on the team selection front, though Virat Kohli didn’t lean one way or the other on match eve, as is customary. There were some indications that KL Rahul could replace Shikhar Dhawan at the top of the order, but among the other questions the team will wrestle with is whether to go with six batsmen or five, not to speak of Ajinkya Rahane’s spot. One left-field option – and this team has shown itself not be averse to that – is bringing in Parthiv Patel at the top of the order for Dhawan. That preserves the left-right combination that Kohli seems to desire and if Parthiv comes in and Wriddhiman Saha becomes victim of horses for courses, both Rohit Sharma and Rahane can be in the middle order. The pace bowling attack should keep their spots because they did very well in Newlands and also got a ringing endorsement from Kohli. “We are very happy with the way the bowlers went about their business,” he said. “The batting didn’t come out well so I’m not worried on the bowling front at all. We have been in a very good space and we believe we can get them out twice again in this game.” Having said that, if seam movement is not as much of a factor here and bounce is, it also opens the doors for someone like Ishant Sharma to come in.
Like in the last match, South Africa too have their own selection dilemmas. To go with four out and out pacers could give Lungisani Ngidi, the young pacer who’s reputed to be very quick, the spot vacated by Dale Steyn. However, there are the claims of someone like Chris Morris to consider too, who also brings in all-round skills.
“The success of our Test team is highly dependent on the fast bowlers we have in our armoury,” said Faf du Plessis. “That’s why Lungi has been brought into the squad — we want to get a closer look at him and what he can do. Before yesterday, I hadn’t seen him bowl at all. I believe there is a lot of talent there.”
That the captain hasn’t seen Ngidi bowl in person before match eve might make him reluctant to take a punt on the big, strapping pacer. But du Plessis also said that he was looking at Morris only as a fourth pacer. “Right now I look at Morry as a fourth seamer replacement,” he elaborated. “If you pick four seamers, he can be in amongst them. Consistency-wise he has got a bit of work to do to be a third seamer. If you pick three seamers, he will consistently have to be on the money. Dale, Morne (Morkel), Vernon (Philander) and KG (Kagiso Rabada) are a step above in that regard. But if we play four seamers he is someone who gets talked about because he has pace and X-factor, and obviously he bats as well.”
The pitch at SuperSport Park looked a lot more brown than its counterpart at Newlands, though Bryan Bloy, the groundsman, made it clear that the colour wouldn’t affect the pace and carry on offer. In the nets too, the pace bowlers got balls to lift off a length and anybody at Centurion will tell you that the Highveld region is known for the bounce in its pitches. So India aren’t going to go into the match looking at the brownish surface and get fooled into imagining it to be something closer to home conditions. Bloy did say, though, that his aim is to make the match last five days.
It has been a hot summer in Centurion and the forecast for the next five days is also for sunny skies, which means there is cricketing logic to the teams keeping one spin option at least for the last two days at least. And while there’s no Table Mountain to provide a stunning backdrop, the SuperSport Park is among the venues easiest on the eyes, with rolling grass banks all around and the Gautrain track passing right outside.
It’s the train that takes you from Centurion to Johannesburg. The Indians will be hoping their journey from the venue of the second Test to the third is a happier one than from the first Test to the second. The South Africans will be going all out to ensure their own journey is as relaxed as possible, with the series already in the bag. As both teams have shown already, they will test each other to the hilt. With even more riding on this match than on the first, the cricket promises to be just as enthralling.
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (capt), Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock (wk), Theunis de Bruyn, Vernon Philander, Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Lungisani Ngidi, Duanne Olivier.
India: Virat Kohli (capt), M Vijay, KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Parthiv Patel (wk), Hardik Pandya, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah.