Rohit, Umesh and South Africa’s dress rehearsal

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Sep
25

Ahead of their three-Test series against India, which begins in Visakhapatnam on October 2, South Africa play a three-day warm-up match against the Indian Board President’s XI, starting Thursday in Vizianagaram. Rain is forecast for all three days of the match, and both teams will hope there is enough dry weather for their players to get a decent workout before the Tests begin.

Here are some of the key issues the two sets of players will look to sort out during the game.

Rohit Sharma, the opener

Contrary to widespread belief, Rohit Sharma has done a pretty good job when he’s got the opportunity to play Test cricket. Since the start of 2016, he averages 53.00 in 11 Test matches. It’s a sign of the depth of India’s batting resources that he can’t command a consistent spot in the middle order.

Thanks to KL Rahul’s long run of poor form and Prithvi Shaw’s doping ban, however, he now has an opportunity to try and turn himself into a long-format opener. Moving to the top of the order transformed Rohit’s ODI career. Can he make a similar move up the order work in Test cricket too?

Rohit doesn’t have much previous as a red-ball opener. In 137 innings in first-class cricket, he has opened just three times, the last of those occasions – when Mumbai attempted to chase an improbable target of 155 in 11 overs – coming in December 2012.

Apart from the Test-match combination of Rohit and Mayank Agarwal, the Board President’s XI squad also includes two other openers, Abhimanyu Easwaran and Priyank Panchal. Those two will probably have to accept a move down the order for now.

Can South Africa’s batsmen crack the Asia code?

Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis. Only one member of that world-class middle order remains standing now.

This isn’t to say South Africa have an inexperienced batting line-up, per se. Dean Elgar (56 Tests) has only played two fewer Tests than du Plessis, while Temba Bavuma (36) and Quinton de Kock (40) have been around Test cricket for a while, and Aiden Markram (17) is well settled at the top of the order.

But all of them have poor records in Asia.

This is South Africa’s first tour of Asia without both de Villiers (who averaged 54.56 in the continent) and Amla (47.66). In the absence of those two legends, their senior batsmen will have to step up and show the way for less experienced players like Theunis de Bruyn, Zubayr Hamza and Heinrich Klaasen.

Umesh Yadav’s window of opportunity

He took ten wickets in his last Test match at home. During India’s epic 2016-17 home season, he bowled more overs than Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma put together.

But until Jasprit Bumrah was ruled out with a stress fracture, Umesh Yadav wasn’t even in India’s squad for the Tests against South Africa. It is a reflection of just how vast India’s pace pool is, and also of Umesh’s own limitations.

If fit, Ishant and Shami should remain India’s first-choice new-ball pair for the Tests, and Umesh may not get a look-in unless – and it’s a big unless – they play three quicks. Still, if he can knock over a few top-order wickets in Vizianagaram, he will keep himself in the conversation.

Can South Africa’s spinners surprise?

The last time South Africa toured India, they came up against some of the squarest turners seen in this country in a long time. If their batsmen didn’t like it, their spinners should have enjoyed it, but Imran Tahir, Simon Harmer and Dane Piedt fell a long way short of matching the threat of R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra.

Four years on, their squad includes Keshav Maharaj, who may well be their best red-ball spinner since readmission, Piedt – who has forced his way back into Test cricket after topping the 2018-19 4-Day Franchise Series wicket charts with 54 at 27.74 – and the allrounder Senuran Muthusamy.

Piedt and Muthusamy have been in India for a while now, having been part of the South Africa A touring side, and Maharaj has taken been in terrific form for Yorkshire in the County Championship, taking 38 wickets in five matches at 18.92.

With Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje in the pace mix, South Africa will use the Board President’s XI match to figure out what kind of bowling combination they will take into the first Test – two quicks and two spinners, three and one, or even three and two, given the batting ability of Muthusamy and Philander.

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