Nagpur: Leading 1-0 in what has now effectively become a three-game series after the washout at Bengaluru, India would be looking to deliver the knock-out blow on South Africa and sew up the rubber in the third cricket Test commencing here tomorrow.
With the VCA Stadium pitch in Jamtha here sporting a dry look and promising to offer copious turn to spinners, another low-scoring cat-and-mouse contest is on the cards in the penultimate game of the series with India holding the aces because of its superior spin attack.
Both the teams would be a bit rusty going into the game with no play being possible in the second Test at Bengaluru after the opening day’s proceedings following the end of the first Test in Mohali inside three days.
Having knocked down the visitors for scores of 184, 109 and 214 in the three completed South African innings so far in the series, the Indian spin attack poses the biggest threat to the visitors in this do-or-die game which they must win to keep the contest alive for the fourth and last match at Delhi.
Barring the odd wicket to the medium pacers or to a run-out, the Indian spinners have done the bulk of the damage against a side which has played them with a lot of concern and suspicion.
As such, India have a lot going in their favour even if their batsmen, barring opener Murali Vijay and one-down Cheteshwar Pujara, did not do anything significant in the low-scoring first Test at Mohali.
The encouraging return to form of opener Shikhar Dhawan after a string of low scores with a fluent, unbeaten knock of 45 with seven fours in India’s strong reply of 80 for no loss to the visitors’ paltry 214 in the rained-out Bengaluru game is another plus.
Though shot out for 201 and 200 in the opening match at Mohali, Vijay who scored 75 and 47 in the two innings did not feel the hosts’ batting was a cause for worry.
“The confidence is really high as for now because we had a good game (in Mohali) and the first day (in Bengaluru) was in our favour. I don’t think batting is a worry for us because everybody is one match away from a big knock and this match may be the one,” he insisted yesterday.
The key to South Africa turning around the fortunes is the willingness of their batsmen to confront the spin threat posed by Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on a track that could be tailor-made for them.
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Leg spinner Amit Mishra is also expected to regain his spot in the playing eleven after being left out in the second Test and the triple spin attack is again going to test the nerves of South African batsmen.
South Africa’s ODI captain A B de Villiers has been the one to lead the way with a classy 85 at Bengaluru on his milestone 100th Test match.
Mishra dismissed dangerous De Villiers both times at Mohali and this much-expected battle is going to be watched with great interest.
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Unless the Proteas batsmen, especially captain Hashim Amla and Faf du Plussis, strike form and take on the Indian spinners to lend support to de Villiers, their proud achievement of not having lost a Test rubber overseas since 2006 in Sri Lanka is under serious threat.
Amla scored a magnificent 253 five years ago to lead the Proteas to a huge score at this ground and lay the platform for Steyn to produce an incisive spell and knock the stuffing out of the hosts with a seven-wicket haul in the first innings.
South Africa would hope that a return to this venue would help their skipper, who did not score many runs in the preceding T20 and ODI rubbers too.
The Proteas are also faced with the groin injury to their premier fast bowler Steyn, who is doubtful for the upcoming Test after he had sat out of the previous one in Bengaluru.
Steyn had taken 10 wickets in the innings victory notched up by South Africa at this venue five years ago and if he is declared unfit to play it would be huge blow to the visitors’ chances on a track where the ball is expected to keep low.
Steyn bowled for a short while in the nets here yesterday morning, raising the visitors’ hopes.
Steyn’s fast bowling partner Morne Morkel, who himself has come off an injury lay-off on their long tour sustained during the ODI series, said they are keeping their “fingers crossed”.
“Dale (Steyn) bowled this morning. It was a pleasing thing for us to see. Obviously groin is a tricky sort of injury. So I think we will keep monitoring and give him 9 AM (before toss) on Wednesday to decide,” he told reporters here yesterday.
South Africa have flown in the tall Marchant de Lange as a cover for Steyn, but it remains to be seen whether he will take the field without having had sufficient preparations, in case the latter is ruled out.
The tourists have already lost the services of another frontline pacer, Vernon Philander, and his replacement Kyle Abbott played in the rain-ruined Bengaluru game.
Morkel was candid when he spoke about the challenges faced by his team’s bowlers on Indian tracks.
“Coming here as a fast bowler we weren’t expecting favours, we knew that the wickets would turn,” he had said.
“For us, mental preparation was always going to be the key, especially bowling well with a reverse-swinging ball. That has been the big strength for us over the last couple of years and that is how we achieved success in India in the past.”
South Africa will have to hold their nerves in the game here if they want to win the make-or-break battle.
India: Virat Kohli (Captain), Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra, Varun Aaron, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, KL Rahul, Stuart Binny and Gurkeerat Singh Mann.
South Africa: Hashim Amla (Captain), AB de Villiers, Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma, JP Duminy, Stiaan van Zyl, Dane Vilas, Dane Piedt, Simon Harmer, Imran Tahir, Dale Styen, Morne Morkel, Kyle Abbott, Kagiso Rabada, Marchant de Lange.
Match Starts: 9:30 am.
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