India will be desperately hoping that Rohit Sharma replicates his phenomenal limited overs success as a Test opener when the experiment begins with the series opener against South Africa here on Wednesday.
The build-up to the experiment has not been ideal to say the least with Rohit failing to score in South Africa’s sole warm-up game before the series but it won’t surprise many if the stylish opener scores a ‘daddy hundred’ here, like he is used to in the blue jersey.
Rohit is in the form of his life and many former India cricketers, including Yuvraj Singh, believe that the Mumbaikar should be playing in all formats and given a long run as a Test opener.
He could not be accommodated in the middle-order in the two Tests in the West Indies but now with K L Rahul dropped due to lack of runs, Rohit opening the innings could be a blessing in disguise for India by giving them a settled pairing at the top alongside Mayank Agarwal.
In the net sessions ahead of the first Test, all eyes were on Rohit who seemed very much determined to make the most of the opportunity and improve his Test record.
In 27 Tests, he has made 1585 runs at 39.62 while he is the owner of more than 10,000 runs in limited overs cricket.
“If you ask me, Rohit Sharma should have opened in Tests from the beginning of his career. You play him one match and then drop him and say Rohit Sharma is not scoring runs in Test cricket. How can you expect someone to perform without giving him 10 Test,” asked Rohit’s former teammate Yuvraj in a recent interview.
“Now if you are making Rohit Sharma open in Tests, you should give him 6 Tests and tell him Rohit, you have got 10-12 innings, go and play your game, nobody will say anything.
“You gave so many chances to K L Rahul, so whoever is your opener, give him those 6 Test matches so that he can go and express himself,” Yuvraj added.
Another talking point is who is going to keep wickets for India. Despite his inconsistent recent run with the bat, Rishabh Pant remains the first-choice wicketkeeper in all three formats, but a fit Wriddhiman Saha is now ready to replace him.
Having scored centuries in England and Australia, Pant had done enough to cement his place in the Test side but with a fully fit Saha waiting for his opportunity, the southpaw cannot afford slip-ups anymore. Pant played both the Tests in the West Indies while Saha warmed the bench, but there is a strong possibility of the latter getting at least a game in this series.
The rest of line-up looks settled with India expected to field two pacers and as many spinners. If the wicket is turning, Hanuma Vihari can be the third-spinner.
“He can be really handy as a spinner,” said vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane ahead of the game.
Jasprit Bumrah’s absence is a big blow but trust Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami to do the job for India. Only one spinner featured in the playing XI in the West Indies, Ravindra Jadeja, and it remains to be seen who among Ravichandran Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav partners him.
India are the overwhelming favourites against South Africa who have come here with a new-look squad. Only five players, including skipper Faf du Plessis, were part of the squad that received a 3-0 hammering from India four years ago.
Not many are giving the Proteas a chance in the series, especially if the ball starts to turn. Aiden Markram and Temba Bavuma were amongst the runs in the warm-up and that should give them confidence ahead of the game.
The pace trio of Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi can trouble the Indians, especially with prediction of overcast skies and spells of rain on all five days of the game.
India, who are aiming to win a record-breaking 11th consecutive series at home, need to be wary of South Africa’s potent pace attack comprising Rabada, Philander and Ngidi.
India: Virat Kohli (capt), Mayank Agarwal, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Shubman Gill.
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (capt), Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock, Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Senuran Muthusamy, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Vernon Philander, Dane Piedt, Kagiso Rabada, Rudi Second.