It seems like an enviable life. A chartered flight from Mumbai to Johannesburg via the Seychelles. Security escort on landing. A welcome with much pomp at a luxurious, scenic hotel that is closed to other guests. However, for those on the road—the Men in Blue—it is another tour in a bio-bubble. The first training session at SuperSport Park, Centurion, is under overcast conditions. The bowlers smile—it is good weather for bowling; the batters, not so much.
It is new Team India head coach Rahul Dravid’s first series abroad. Who knows better than him what it takes to master the challenges of playing away. His message ahead of the session is: “Quality practice, good intensity”. Test skipper Virat Kohli listens, nods and claps, and it is time to train for what lies ahead. A Test series against hosts South Africa and the possibility of recording India’s first-ever Test series win there.
India, runners-up in the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC), leads the points table of the new WTC cycle with 42 points (three wins, two draws and one loss in 2021). According to Kohli, it was the South Africa tour in 2018 that started Team India’s surge to become one of the best Test teams in the world. (India won the final Test of the series, after losing the first two.) “South Africa was really the start for us as a team, travelling and starting to believe we can win a series overseas,” he said in his pre-departure news conference on December 15. “We built it up nicely in England, and Australia was an accumulation of all those efforts.”
Mastering the conditions will be key in this series. Pace and bounce are going to be the staple diet in Centurion and Johannesburg, with Cape Town having something to offer to the spinners. Dravid had led India to a historic Test win in Johannesburg in 2006, before Kohli repeated the feat in 2018.
For South Africa, this will be their first series of WTC 2021-23. They finished fifth in the last edition. This will be their first series at home led by Dean Elgar, who became captain in June 2021 when the team toured the West Indies. The series is also the first outing for the Proteas since then. Unfortunately, the threat of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 means that it will be played behind closed doors.
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