Virat Kohli’s South African mission

There is a powerful argument which says the current Indian squad is the strongest in the country’s international history. There can surely be no doubt that the depth in all departments is stronger than ever and that the national team has never been better served by its battery of fast bowlers. 

Just when it looked like there might be a shortage of top-quality spinners behind R.Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja, up popped Axar Patel to claim 27 wickets in three Tests against England. At an average of 10.59. 

There have been brilliant individuals in previous generations who would undoubtedly have been selected in the current squad - Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan are three – but never has the country boasted so many world-beating cricketers in both Test and Limited Overs cricket. If India was able to field an ‘A’ team in either the T20 or 50-over World Cup, it is perfectly possible they could meet themselves in the final.

As far as Test cricket is concerned, the recent astonishing series win in Australia during which they used 20 players – the most ever by a victorious team against anybody, anywhere – has taken them to the brink of undeniable confirmation as India’s greatest. Victory in England this summer will be another huge step in that direction but the jewel in the crown is the one Virat Kohli wants most. A series win in South Africa.

Few team records remain unbroken in Test cricket but India’s failure to win a series against the Proteas in their own country seriously irks the Indian captain. In seven attempts they have lost six and drawn one, in thrilling fashion in 2010-11. In 20 Tests, they have managed just three wins. Particularly frustrating for Kohli, however, is that his team came closest of all to winning here on their last tour in 2017-18.

Chasing just 208 in the final innings of the first Test at Newlands, India subsided to 135 all out in the face of Vernon Philander’s 6/42 on a pitch every bit as one-sided in the home team’s favour as an Indian spinners paradise. In the second Test at Centurion Kohli produced one of his greatest innings, 153 out of a total of 307 in reply to South Africa’s 335. But faced with a target of 287 on a deteriorating pitch in the final innings, the tourists folded for 151. South Africa had clinched the series by the skin of their teeth.

The final Test at the Wanderers was even more seamer-friendly. Dangerously so. But Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane made brave, ultimately match-winning 40s in the third innings and it was the hosts who were unable to chase a modest looking target of 241, despite Dean Elgar’s bat-carrying 86*, and India won by 63 runs. All three Tests were close but victory in the third showed Kohli what might have been. Or should have been.

Why is this relevant now? Word out of India recently, officially unconfirmed but from an excellent and reliable source, is that the world’s pre-eminent super-power has agreed to tour South Africa again over the festive season in December and January, no doubt prompted by Kohli’s desire – desperation, perhaps – to tick off his two greatest goals. Win in South Africa and win the IPL. 

India’s proposed tour of South Africa will include three matches in all three formats, but it is the Tests which will concern Kohli far more than the ODIs and T20Is. By then the cricket world will have ‘recovered’ from its white ball year and will, once again, have a more balanced playing schedule. Although the only ‘balance’ Kohli will be targeting is the 7-0-6-1 reflection on his country’s previous visits to SA.

 The endless stream of administrative crap has blunted our trust, enjoyment and love of the game for almost three years. Many followers have left. Some may return. CSA’s Operations Team, far removed from the delinquent Members Council, have done extraordinary work during the Covid pandemic. The completion of a domestic season, albeit curtailed, was a remarkable achievement. 

If their plans are not thwarted by travel bans and other logistical barriers, the Proteas will play two Tests and five T20Is in the Caribbean in June before traveling to Ireland for three ODIs and three T20Is in July. August will provide a brief respite before further white ball tours of Sri Lanka and India in September and October provide ideal preparation for the T20 World Cup, in India, in November. The Netherlands will be on-hand to play three ODIs in South Africa before the India tour starts.

Another postponed tour, England’s three-match ODI series which should have taken place in Cape Town in December, has been provisionally rescheduled for February next year. 

As I write this, literally, Cricket South Africa’s immediate future is at stake. South Africa’s status in international cricket is at stake. The CSA Members Council (see previous column if you don’t know who they are) and the Interim Board are in discussion with the Minister of Sport, Nathi Mthethwa. If the Members Council cannot agree to the appointment of a majority-independent board by 6th April 2021, Kohli’s dream may be at an end. Because South Africa will be expelled as an Associate of the ICC. 

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