Bold decisions could bring parity for India
It’s now or never for the visitors as another South African win will shut India out of the series
The SuperSport Park here is a throwback to another era with hills on both sides, an open press box, and a general sense of space.
In fact, Centurion has a rather languorous feel about it. It’s a quiet town with a quaint ground and a rich history of some titanic duels.
It was here that maestro Sachin Tendulkar blazed into a pumped-up Shoaib Akhtar, bowling seriously quick and banging it in short, in the high-octane India-Pakistan ICC ODI World Cup duel of 2003.
This, however, is Test match time here with the series on a knife edge.
The pitch holds the key: Of course, much focus is on the surface for the Test beginning on Saturday. Will it be another shootout with the pacemen pulling the trigger on a responsive wicket?
The pitch might not have as much grass as the one at Newlands — there is a thinner coating of green here — but the surface appears hard.
Consequently, the track might not offer as much seam movement for the pacemen as Newlands did but there surely would be extra bounce.
There has been a heat wave in these parts recently and if the sun beats down the pitch and makes it drier, the wicket could quicken up as the match progresses.
The pacemen would be on the prowl again. If South Africa wins here, there will be no comebacks for India on its African Safari.
The Indian team-management, simply put, has to take some bold decisions.
Play Rahul at the top: India has to recall K.L. Rahul, a sound backfoot player who can cope with the conditions here, at the top. Shikhar Dhawan was found out technically against the bouncing ball on these wickets at Newlands and Rahul should partner M. Vijay.
The elegant Rahul is composed at the crease, has time to play. The role of the top-order is crucial in the first 35 overs — it needs to prevent South Africa from making inroads when the ball is new.
Bring back Rahane for Rohit: Ajinkya Rahane might not have been in the best of forms going into this series but has succeeded here in the past and is equipped to play bounce and movement.
This is a Test where India has to play its best XI or is out of the series. And there is a certain looseness about Rohit’s game that appears pronounced in these conditions.
Give Ishant Sharma a fling: If the pitch at Centurion offers bounce then the lanky Ishant could be a handful with his line and lift from the back of a length or the good length area.
It might be hard to fit Ishant in the XI though, given the performances of the Indian pace pack, particularly in the second innings, at Newlands.
However, there were occasions when Bhuvneshwar, who has strappings over a few sore areas, appeared to be struggling with niggles — his pace dropped in subsequent spells — and his fitness will be closely monitored. If Bhuvneshwar misses out, Ishant will come in.
Stay away from outlandish moves: There are some theories doing the rounds such as getting Parthiv Patel to open — this would be extremely unfair on wicketkeeper-batsman Wriddhiman Saha who set an Indian record for most dismissals in a Test, at Cape Town — to save a place for a specialist middle-order batsman and a bowler, but such a move has its flaws.
Some question why Ashwin should be in the eleven if he if bowls so few overs — India could pick an extra batsman in his place. But then, Ashwin, as he showed in the second innings of the first Test, can hold his own with the bat in such conditions and then nick out batsmen with over-spin on bouncy tracks.
India has to find that winning edge to its cricket again.