A context-less, stand-alone three-match One-Day International series between India and South Africa has the feeling of an unwanted sporting event in the current global climate but the two sides are all set to carry on with their professional duties in Dharamsala on Thursday, weather permitting.
While India are back home after a long tour of New Zealand, the teams’ respective forms going into this series could not be more contrasting. Virat Kohli and Co were handed a 3-0 drubbing by New Zealand, while under the leadership of Quinton de Kock, South Africa tasted a 3-0 win over rivals Australia at home.
So, while the series might feel oddly placed in the calendar in terms of cricketing circumstances and otherwise, there is a certain amount of intrigue in seeing how things pan out for both teams.
Return of the all-rounder
For India, Hardik Pandya’s eagerly-awaited international comeback lends a crucial balance to the squad as the hosts aim to put the New Zealand nightmare behind them.
Amid the ever-rising danger of Novel Coronavirus and threat of rain once again playing spoilsport (the T20I between these two sides was washed out at this venue last year), Pandya’s all-round flamboyance adds a must-watch factor to the series opener.
Pandya last played an ODI against New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final in Manchester and his last international game was a T20 against the Proteas in Bengaluru in September last year. He forced his way back into the national team with his all-round performances at the DY Patil Corporate Cup, where he looked fit and ready to go.
Skipper Kohli has been open about ODIs being least of priority in a World T20 year. But a man of his competitive drive would hate to lose another series against an inexperienced but in-form South African side which is buoyed by the crushing series win over the Aussies and good performances against England earlier.
Especially having lost five international games (two Tests included) on trot, the Indian skipper, enduring one of his rarest of rare bad patches with the bat in last six years will be keen to buck the trend.
Kohli managed just 75 runs against the Kiwis, and going by his standards the Indian skipper would be itching to silence his critics, who have raised eyebrows after his statement on ODIs not having context in the current calendar.
The presence of Pandya along with a fit-again senior opener Shikhar Dhawan (shoulder dislocation) and seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar (sports hernia surgery) makes India a more formidable unit on paper against a South African side that comprises of seasoned campaigners like de Kock, Faf du Plessis and David Miller (his flaky form notwithstanding) in their ranks.
The three returning players automatically pick themselves in the playing XI while it remains to be seen if Manish Pandey might just get a longer run at No 6 now that Kedar Jadhav has finally been dropped from the squad. It might come down to a call between Ravindra Jadeja and the Karnataka batsman in the playing XI.
In the absence of Rohit Sharma, who is yet to recover from a calf injury, Dhawan’s return would lend valuable experience to the Indian top-order, which badly missed both the openers in New Zealand. Dhawan had dislocated his shoulder during the final ODI against Australia at home and missed the New Zealand series. He will likely be partnered by Prithvi Shaw, while Shubman Gill remains an option.
Kumar’s return will give India good depth during the slog overs where Shardul Thakur had seemed out of depth. Mohammed Shami has been rested for the series after getting a blow on his shoulder in the second Test in New Zealand.
Jadeja could be picked as the lone spinning option on a seamer-friendly Dharamsala track unless team management feels the urge to include Kuldeep Yadav or Yuzvendra Chahal in the team, thereby placing more onus on Pandya as a lower-order batsman.
There are definite questions facing Kohli but these are the headaches of the good kind, as the cliche goes.
South Africa, on the other hand, are coming into the tour brimming with confidence after whitewashing Australia in the three-match ODI series. Du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen, who were rested for that rubber, are part of South Africa’s touring party. Since quitting as captain, du Plessis has not had a good run with the bat and would like to do the course correction in his most preferred format.
Heinrich Klaasen and Kyle Verreynne, both of whom played crucial roles in South Africa’s ODI series win over Australia, would look to carry on their form in India while Temba Bavuma, who suffered a hamstring strain and missed the last two ODIs against Australia, has also returned but doubtful of playing right away. Janneman Malan earned his call-up as the 16th member of the squad after his match-winning ton in the second ODI against Australia.
This will be South Africa’s first ODI at this venue while India have played four ODIs at the picturesque Himachal stadium, losing two and winning two. The side batting second has won three of the four contests at the ground.
The second and third ODIs will be held at Lucknow (March 15) and Kolkata (March 18).
India: Virat Kohli (C), Shikhar Dhawan, Prithvi Shaw, KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Navdeep Saini, Kuldeep Yadav, Shubman Gill.
South Africa: Quinton de Kock (C), Temba Bavuma, Rassie van der Dussen, Faf du Plessis, Kyle Verreynne, Heinrich Klaasen, Janneman Malan David Miller, Jon-Jon Smuts, Andile Phehlukwayo, Lungi Ngidi, Lutho Sipamla, Beuran Hendricks, Anrich Nortje, George Linde, Keshav Maharaj.
Match starts at 1:30pm IST.
(With PTI inputs)