Southampton: Virat Kohli will embark on the most defining journey of his international career, carrying the hopes of more than a billion when he leads India in their World Cup opener against a struggling South Africa here Wednesday.
Kohli is one of the best batsmen of this era but this edition of the World Cup will define his legacy as a leader, an aspect on which the jury is still divided despite some heady achievements in the Test arena.
The current team does have potent match-winners with the skipper himself being the biggest of them all but it still misses the aura, the ‘class of 2011’ under Mahendra Singh Dhoni had.
Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh were in a different league with the support cast comprising Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra, Suresh Raina and a young Kohli.
But this team, led by Kohli and mentored by Dhoni, has had its share of good results and six wins in nine games would ensure a smooth passage into the semifinals. Yes India do have the potential match-winners and talented players like Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Hardik Pandya, KL Rahul, Jasprit Bumrah and Kuldeep Chahal… cricketers who can turn any game on its head on a given day.
The clash couldn’t have been more well-timed for India as they go into the game with adequate rest and South Africa low on confidence after their back-to-back losses against England and Bangladesh.
To make matters worse for South Africa, fast bowler Lungi Ngidi is out with a hamstring strain, senior speedster Dale Steyn is still recovering from a shoulder injury and Hashim Amla yet to fully match-fit after being hit nastily on the helmet off Jofra Archer.
However, a cornered opponent is always a dangerous proposition and head coach Ravi Shastri, a shrewd tactician by all means, will be surely aware of the dangers South Africa possess.
The pitch at the Ageas Bowl stadium in Southampton, devoid of grass cover, is expected to be batting-friendly but Kohli will have a few points to ponder upon as the weather forecast on match day indicates cloud cover with intermittent shower.
Kohli will have a lot to ponder about the final XI, the main question being whether he goes in with third seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar or use both Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. In Bhuvneshwar he has a player who can also wield the willow and this may clear the way for his inclusion in the final XI. The rest more or less pick themselves.
There’s no doubt that the Proteas are badly hit by poor form and injuries but it may just take one fiery spell from Kagiso Rabada to straighten things up. But even then Rabada alone may not be able to single-handedly destroy the Indians. He will need the support of other bowlers as well as batsmen.
What will be a bigger worry for South African skipper Faf Du Plessis will be the batting where AB de Villiers’ absence has surely had a huge impact. The poor technique of Proteas batsmen against slow bowlers have been time and again exposed and 20 overs of quality spin bowling could be too hot to handle for the South Africans.
In all, it’s advantage India at Southampton – at least on paper.
India vs South Africa head-to-head in World Africa
Matches played: 4 South Africa won 3 India won 1
March 15, 1992 Adelaide South Africa won by 6 wickets
May 15, 1999 Hove South Africa won by 4 wickets
March 12, 2011 Nagpur South Africa won by 3 wickets
Feb 22, 2015 Melbourne India won by 130 runs
Best individual batting
Shikhar Dhawan 137 MCG Melbourne
Jacques Kallis 96 County Ground Hove
Best Individual bowling (India)
Harbhajan Singh 3/53 VCA Stadium Nagpur
Dale Steyn 5/43 VCA Stadium Nagpur
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