Over the course of the next 18 months, India will travel to South Africa, England, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean. As the No. 1-ranked Test side in the world, one would expect them to be as dominant in those countries as they have been in India, chiefly, over the last season or so. That might not happen, though. The reality is when India board those flights, they will do so with the ‘poor visitors’ tag on.
Few teams have cracked the combination for consistent success on foreign tours, and Virat Kohli’s men have their eyes on unravelling exactly that cipher. Of course, during such tedious tours, there are bound to be a few breakdowns here and there. Unlike on some occasions in the past, though, that’s one area India might not have to worry too much.
There is an entire lineup of quality cricketers waiting on the wings to slide into the main side, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India is ensuring that they’re ready to take on the best in business in conditions which feel less alien with exposure.
SQUAD: Karun Nair (capt), Vijay Shankar, Shreyas Iyer, Ankit Bawne, Sudip Chatterjee, Ishan Kishan (wk), Hanuma Vihari, K Gowtham, Shahbaz Nadeem, Navdeep Saini, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, Aniket Choudhary.
First ‘Test’: August 12-15: Willowmoore Park, Benoni
Second Test: August 19-22: Groenkloof stadium, Pretoria
While the Indian Under-19 team is away in England, the India A team landed up in South Africa for a one-day tri-series, comprising the hosts and Afghanistan. Led by Manish Pandey, they were clinical in their triumph. But now the focus shifts to the two four-day games against South Africa A with the first one starting on Saturday (August 12) at Willowmoore Park in Benoni.
The young squad, led by Karun Nair, could well have a tough task on their hands, but to say they’re equipped is understating it. Shepherded by Rahul Dravid, the head coach, the youngsters went through a vigorous training programme at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore for nearly a month in preparation for the tour. Abhinav Mukund’s promotion to the senior side for the tour of Sri Lanka does bring down the experience quotient considerably, but these young men have solid numbers backing their claim to this position. Of course, runs and wickets don’t necessarily mean a direct entry into the main side, but it does go a long way in their battle for the Promised Land.
As promising as every member of the squad is, there are a few that truly stand out, and here’s our pick of the top five who can be expected to come good in South Africa.
KARUN NAIR: When you score a triple century in your debut Test series, the spotlight doesn’t swing far from you, no matter how long. While some soak it up, some struggle. Nair seems to be of the latter category, and has been roughing it out. Since the 303 not out against England in Chennai in December 2016, his form has dipped considerably, forcing the selectors to leave him out of India’s tour of Sri Lanka. Nair’s talent and his penchant for the big innings are great for the future of Indian cricket, which is perhaps why the 25-year-old was made skipper of the A side for the four-day games. He has the makings of a great No. 6 for India but for that, he’ll need to return to scoring ways. His returns for the one-day side in South Africa included one half-century, but surely he’s capable of more.
SHREYAS IYER: Ask anyone in the know in Mumbai and they’ll insist that Iyer should’ve already played for India. There is some validity in their reasoning. After all, 3366 runs from 38 first-class games for Mumbai at an average of 55.18 are not the type of numbers you can ignore for long. Granted, he is streaky outside the off stump and hasn’t yet worked on his temperament, but he’s 22. After a standout Ranji Trophy season in 2015-16 where he scored 1321 runs, runs have dried up, but every once in a while he cracks the code like he did in India A’s tri-series final against South Africa A where he smashed an unbeaten 140 in India’s victory. In a nutshell, look out for this lanky youngster and his unmistakable swagger.
“They are basically next in line to make it to the Indian team. Selectors normally don’t look beyond India A players when they’re trying to find replacements. It’s a very competitive space, I’d say it’s probably more competitive than the senior team itself because there, players have some assurance of playing time. If you see you recently also, there is the competition for the opening slots but people who have done well in the past have returned from injury and found their way back into the side. In India A, it’s not as easy. People need to make their chances count” – Lalchand Rajput.
MOHAMMED SIRAJ: On the back of fine performances in the Ranji Trophy (third-highest wicket-taker with 41 scalps) and the Inter-State T20 Tournament (9 wickets at 13.88), the 23-year-old from Hyderabad was bought by Sunrisers Hyderabad for IPL 2017. There was plenty of doubt cast on how he would fare on the big stage, but much to everyone’s surprise, and Hyderabad’s delight, Siraj bagged ten wickets in the tournament. A strong frame allows him to hurl the ball at close at 140 kmph regularly enough to draw attention to him. But speed isn’t everything with Siraj. Despite his unique action, he has good control, and that reflected during the one-day series where he picked up five wickets in three games.
SHAHBAZ NADEEM: When you have finished back-to-back Ranji Trophy seasons as the highest wicket-taker, you’d think the senior team would come calling a lot sooner. But unfortunately, Nadeem has had to bide his time. Nadeem, 27, picked up 51 wickets in the 2015-16 season and 56 in the 2016-17 season. The Jharkhand-born left-arm spinner also has 307 wickets from 83 first-class matches and yet he remains on the threshold. Of course, breaking into the senior team when Axar Patel, Jayant Yadav and Kuldeep Yadav are in line to replace R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, isn’t going to be easy for the spinner, but perhaps a good chunk of wickets in South Africa can do the trick.
ISHAN KISHAN: There are evident chinks in Kishan’s batting armour and it does make it hard to watch him bat at times, but when he gets going, it’s a sight for sore eyes. His high back-lift and that typical left-handed grace paint a pretty picture. But don’t let the fluidity fool you, this youngster packs a punch. After guiding the Indian Under-19 side to the World Cup final where they lost to the West Indies, Kishan was picked up by Gujarat Lions for the 2016 IPL, but it wasn’t until the next season that the world got to understand why the fraternity fussed over the youngster.
Lalchand Rajput (Former India Manager, Current Afghanistan coach)
How important is it to have a well-oiled India A side?
Oh, it’s tremendously important. They are basically next in line to make it to the Indian team. Selectors normally don’t look beyond India A players when they’re trying to find replacements. It’s a very competitive space, I’d say it’s probably more competitive than the senior team itself because there, players have some assurance of playing time. If you see you recently also, there is the competition for the opening slots but people who have done well in the past have returned from injury and found their way back into the side. In India A, it’s not as easy. People need to make their chances count.
How do you think this tour to South Africa can help them?
Firstly, most of them would not have played in South Africa. Secondly, you are on the verge of making it to the senior team. For example, when India prepares to go to South Africa on tour, and if you suddenly get called-up, you won’t feel out of place if you’ve had some experience. Also, it’s not only about the cricket. It’s about getting used to the weather, the people, the food and everything else. Your life changes dramatically when you’re touring and until you go on a few tours you won’t understand. At least nowadays cricketers don’t feel like fish out of water when they’re called up to the senior side. They’ve already seen a good amount of international cricket before getting to that level. Also, South Africa is a good side, they have a number of players who are supposed to be very good. It won’t be easy for India.
What do you make of the current side?
I think all of these boys are capable of being direct replacements for players in the senior team. Of course they’ll need to work on a lot of things and they aren’t the complete package, but neither are the senior players themselves. Cricket is a constant process and you have to learn to evolve. If you think a shot is played a certain way and you stick to that without accepting that that particular shot can be played another way too, you’re in a rut. Your mind must be open to change, and I think that’s what I see in this team. All of these boys are young and they’re open to new ideas and new coaching methods. Even during the one-day series, they showed great composure and adaptability. Those are great signs, but the true test is now.