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Updated December 25th, 2023 at 16:12 IST

Rohit Sharma's men gear up to end 31-year wait for series win in South Africa

The two-match Test rubber, starting here on the Boxing Day, will be India's ninth away series in the Rainbow Nation since 1992, and captain Rohit will have an onerous task of traversing a difficult terrain in order to conquer what has always been dubbed the team's 'final frontier'.

Rohit Sharma
Rohit Sharma | Image:AP
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He endured the heartbreak of a lifetime 36 evenings back but Rohit Sharma will give his all to erase the memories of a World Cup final defeat as he trains his eyes on ending India's 31-year wait for a Test series win on South African soil.

The two-match Test rubber, starting here on the Boxing Day, will be India's ninth away series in the Rainbow Nation since 1992, and captain Rohit will have an onerous task of traversing a difficult terrain in order to conquer what has always been dubbed the team's 'final frontier'.

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However, for the action to start at Supersport Park, the heavy rains predicted on the first two days need to subside.

The Centurion track offers variable bounce and is one of the fastest in the region. And that makes up for a compelling contest between bat and ball in relatively cooler and windy conditions in an open ground where it can jag around a bit.

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In the last 50 over World Cup, skipper Rohit, at best would have emulated Kapil Dev and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, but if he and his men manage to pull off a coup in this country, he would stand first among the equals.

Mohammed Azharuddin (1992) failed, so did Sachin Tendulkar (1996) and Sourav Ganguly (2001). Rahul Dravid (2006-07), Dhoni (2010-11 and 2013-14) won Test matches, and so did Virat Kohli (2018-19 and 2021-22) but none of them could win the elusive series in South Africa.

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So Rohit will have a job at hand and a win might just be the much-needed soothing balm required to heal the World Cup wounds even though the scars will remain.

For the golden generation of Indian cricketers, this is also their last African Safari and a chance to conquest what no other team could on eight previous tours.

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In Temba Bavuma's South Africa, they have a team that has a crack fast bowling attack, which could make some of the young Indian batters look like cats on hot tin roof.

For Yashasvi Jaiswal, it will be the first big test against a quality attack comprising Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Marco Jansen and Gerald Coetzee. There will be way more bounce than what he got in the Caribbean, and the variable nature of it will ask him probing questions.

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Similarly, Shubman Gill and Shreyas Iyer, who have proven their mettle on sub-continental pitches, need to up their game in more challenging batting conditions.

Iyer, especially, with his well-documented weakness against the short ball, will have to churn out something really special.

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Coach Rahul Dravid doesn't want Jaiswal and Gill to change their style but wants them to develop game awareness and play as per the need of the hour.

"We encourage the players to play (in a manner) they feel most comfortable. In the end they are judged by the results they produce. They know that," Dravid said.

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But that freedom comes with a rider.

"We want to encourage them in the way they play but also keeping the conditions in mind and certain, sort of tactical thing they have to adopt when they play in South Africa.

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"The nature of ball, how it behaves over 80 overs, shots that they play early and later on. I think it's about finding balance between having cricket smarts to read the game and understand the situation, and of course allowing to express yourself.

"Hopefully, they make smart decisions," the coach had said on Christmas eve.

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But all said and done, India's performance will depend on three factors: how well the skipper executes his hook and pull shots, for how much time Virat Kohli decides to leave balls outside the off-stump, and how well the team covers up Mohmmed Shami's absence.

The skiddy Mukesh Kumar looked better at the nets but the extra bounce available makes a case for Prasidh Krishna.

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Bavuma, the retiring Dean Elgar, the stylish Aiden Markram, the exciting Tony de Zorzi, and the dogged Keegan Petersen constitute a good batting unit that can make Indian bowlers toil hard.

KL Rahul donning the big gloves is another aspect of this game. The team management handing over keeping responsibilities to Rahul can be viewed from two different prisms.

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The positive one would be the faith in his ability as a glovesman in 50-over cricket and hoping that he can do it for 90 overs in a day.

The not-so-positive aspect will be the sheer desperation not to lose that extra batter in Iyer and also not looking at the bigger picture that Rahul could find it extremely difficult to stand up to Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in a month's time against England at home, provided Ishan Kishan isn't back from his mental health break.

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It will be another away Test match which Ashwin might have to miss because of conditions and combinations.

At Supersport Park, it normally takes three and half to four days to achieve results and if the toss happens on the second day, after a washout on opening day, batting first will surely be a very difficult proposition.

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Teams: India: Rohit Sharma (captain), Yashasvi Jaiswal, Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul (wk), Shreyas Iyer, Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, Mukesh Kumar, Prasidh Krishna, KS Bharat (wk), Abhimanyu Easwaran (2nd Test).

South Africa: Temba Bavuma (captain), Aiden Markram, Tony de Zorzi, Dean Elgar, Keegan Petersen, Kyle Verreynne (wk), Tristan Stubbs (wk), Nandre Burger, Marco Jansen, Wiaan Mulder, Gerald Coetzee, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, David Bedingham.

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Match Starts: 1:30 pm IST. 

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Published December 25th, 2023 at 16:12 IST

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