Virat Kohli, India’s captain, will be fighting on numerous fronts to get the tricky team mix right as India looks to win their first-ever away series against South Africa, which begins on Boxing Day. It’s not easy to choose between an unproven rookie like Shreyas Iyer and an experienced but out-of-form Ajinkya Rahane for the number five spot. It’s more like choosing between a rock and a hard place, with the fear of the unknown always present.

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Not to mention the difficult decision of whether Shardul Thakur, who has considerably greater talents, should replace an ‘over the hill’ Ishant Sharma as the fifth spinner. These aren’t the simplest decisions to make, and they necessitate a great deal of tactical knowledge combined with excellent communication abilities.

The team management in Mumbai could rest both Rahane and Ishant on the excuse of niggles during the New Zealand Test, but if the duo does not feature in the playing eleven on Sunday, it will be as good as being dropped. They were ‘unofficially dropped’ in the previous Test, and they will be officially dumped in this one. The voyage to Rainbow Nation has been a ‘Achilles Heel’ for visiting Indian teams since their historic first visit in 1992, and skipper Kohli, who is nearing the conclusion of his leadership stint, would want to make history.

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First and foremost, Kohli, the captain, would like to reassert his dominance with a win over a team that only has two players with 50 or more Test appearances – skipper Dean Elgar (69 Tests) and senior keeper-batter Temba Bavuma (53 Tests). It only helps that Kagiso Rabada will not be joined in the bowling attack by the dangerous and world’s quickest Anrich Nortje, while left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj is the least of Indian batters’ worries.

Second, Kohli, the team’s top hitter, hasn’t scored a Test century since 2019 and has a career average of under 30. It does not live up to the high expectations that the Indian captain is known for. In this series, he must be setting himself up to fire.

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Kohli will also participate in the series after defeating the establishment. He made it obvious how he feels about the current BCCI president, who also happens to be a well-known former national skipper. Those who know Kohli, though, know that any minor squabble is an opportunity for him to have a good scrap. Kohli is at his best when he sees the world to be against him.

He’s been in good form during net sessions, and the South African attack could be just what he’s looking for. However, he would need KL Rahul, his new deputy, to repeat his performance in England, as well as Cheteshwar Pujara to score a few runs after blunting the new Kookaburra if necessary.

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Duanne Oliver’s back of the length deliveries, which can rear up on a Centurion track that promises to pace up as the match develops, would put Iyer, who appears to be ahead of Rahane in the battle for the No. 5 berth, to the test. In Rahane’s situation, he is entirely lacking in confidence, which is never a good sign.

In challenging conditions, Rishabh Pant’s game always improves a notch or two, and skipper Kohli won’t mind if he can make mincemeat of left-arm spinner Maharaj with his one-handed sixes. Much will hinge on how Rabada and Oliver begin the match.

However, like with any other away tour, the difference between the two sides might be Jasprit Bumrah, who is fresh from a break and ready to demolish a batting line-up that relies on Elgar, his deputy Temba Bavuma, and De Kock. The rest of the South African batsmen may struggle against Ravichandran Ashwin if Bumrah and Shami can blow out the top-order. All of that will be required for skipper Kohli.

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South Africa is no longer a force to be reckoned with in international cricket, having gone through a difficult transition period in recent years. Kohli’s men would like to pounce like ravenous African lions on the skittish Proteas, as the visitors have far more quality than the host squad, which is full of novices.

However, an away Test series with some intriguing subplots and secret narratives adds to the suspense of the upcoming clash, particularly for ‘King Kohli.’ This series will be battling numerous wars — some actual and a few intangible — even if he firmly denies it in the public sphere.

What: India vs South Africa, 1st Test

When: December 26, Sunday

Where: SuperSport Park, Centurion

Start Time: 1:30 pm IST


India: Virat Kohli (captain), KL Rahul (vc), Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Jayant Yadav, Priyank Panchal, Umesh Yadav, Hanuma Vihari, Ishant Sharma

South Africa: Dean Elgar (captain), Temba Bavuma (vice-captain), Quinton de Kock (wicket-keeper), Kagiso Rabada, Sarel Erwee, Beuran Hendricks, George Linde, Keshav Maharaj, Lungi Ngidi, Aiden Markram, Wiaan Mulder, Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen, Kyle Verreynne, Marco Jansen, Glenton Stuurman, Prenelan Subrayen, Sisanda Magala, Ryan Rickelton, Duanne Olivier.