India vs South Africa: Crucial Points on the Line as India Look to Whitewash Proteas
Before August this year, situations like the third Test between India and South Africa in Ranchi, with the hosts having sealed the series 2-0, will be called 'dead rubber'. Both teams would have been inclined to giving their bench a game, with nothing to lose.
But in the era of ICC Test Championship, there are no dead rubbers. There are 40 points to gain, which could be useful in the long run. Even for India, who are comfortably leading the table with 200 points.
Virat Kohli made that clear after the win in the second Test in Pune, saying there's no chance India will drop down in intensity. Kohli is known for making changes to his XI often, but that might not be the case this time. It's South Africa who have to make at least two changes, with Keshav Maharaj and Aiden Markram ruled out with injuries.
India are on auto pilot, irrespective of the personnel. All their batsmen are in form. All their bowlers are picking wickets. It won't be wrong to say they are close to unbeatable at home; they have an aura around them when playing in these conditions.
The big difference between India and South Africa has been the 'big scores'. When an Indian batsman gets a start, he makes it big. Mayank Agarwal and Kohli have made double-centuries. Rohit Sharma has a 176. They're consistent too; Mayank and Rohit have two centuries in the series already, while Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja and Ajinkya Rahane have contributed with one half-century each.
South Africa's batsmen have got starts, but have not made them big. Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock scored centuries in the first innings at Visakhapatnam but their form has tapered down. Faf du Plessis has two half-centuries, but has not converted. That's not enough especially in these conditions where one wicket brings two, or more.
On the contrary, South Africa's contributors have been in the lower order. Senuran Muthusamy, Maharaj, Dane Piedt and Vernon Philander have all made runs, but they've all come at times when the game had already gone past them.
For South Africa to stay in the game, they need the top order to click. The seniors - Elgar, du Plessis and de Kock - have to make themselves count. Temba Bavuma and Theunis de Bruyn, who have struggled but might get away thanks to Markram's injury, have to step up.
South Africa have to decide who they replace Markram with. Will they go for Zubayr Hamsa or an aggressive choice in Heinrich Klaasen? Maharaj's absence will pave way for one of Piedt or George Linde. South Africa also have Lungi Ngidi, but he could have to wait for his turn.
The pitch at Ranchi is dry, which means the visitors will face a trial by spin. There's a slim chance India might play Kuldeep Yadav for one of the pacers, making life even more difficult for South Africa. R Ashwin is the leading wicket-taker of the series (14) and is followed by Ravindra Jadeja (10).
South Africa will rue the fact that they've lost 16 wickets to pace in the two Tests. It's an aspect of the game they'd have felt a bit more control, and yet have struggled. If that margin can be reduced, they'll believe they have a better chance of battling against turn.
Talking about controllables and uncontrollables, South Africa have a big battle at the toss. They've lost nine in a row in Asia, and cannot afford that once more. Will they find some luck in Ranchi?
India: Mayank Agarwal, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli(c), Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Ravindra Jadeja, Wriddhiman Saha(w), R Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav, Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill.
South Africa: Dean Elgar Theunis de Bruyn, Dane Piedt, Temba Bavuma, Faf du Plessis(c), Quinton de Kock(w), Senuran Muthusamy, Vernon Philander, George Linde, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Heinrich Klaasen, Zubayr Hamza, Anrich Nortje.