The 22-yard strip at Ferozeshah Kotla will be the cynosure of all eyes as a buoyant India eye their biggest series win against South Africa when they square off in the final cricket Test of the four-match rubber starting here on Thursday.
Having taken an unassailable 2-0 lead, India will be looking for another facile victory against the Proteas, which will propel them to the second position in the ICC Test rankings.
However, with the Jamtha pitch at BCCI president Shashank Manohar’s hometown Nagpur incurring the wrath of ICC match referee Jeff Crowe, who rated it as sub-standard, the focus will be firmly on the pitch at the national capital.
Team Director Ravi Shastri and skipper Virat Kohli might have shrugged off queries about pitches prepared for the preceding Tests in Nagpur, Bangalore and Mohali, but they will have to live with it for the next five days.
While the Ferozeshah Kotla track is not expected to be a rank turner, the primary character of the pitch has been of low and slow nature, which is unlikely to change.
India’s spin troika have so far accounted for 47 out of the 50 South African wickets in the five completed innings across three Tests.
Of them, Ravichandran Ashwin emerged as the leader of the pack with 24 victims to his credit, while Ravindra Jadeja has made an impressive comeback with 16 scalps. Leg-spinner Amit Mishra has only seven wickets to his credit, but his victims have been critical in the context of the twin victories.
Mishra pointed out that the Indian spinners did not get a lot of accolades for their efforts and rewards on a track that has now been officially documented as under-prepared with some of the deliveries turning square from the first session.
One of the wickets that caught the eye was the manner in which right-handed batsman Simon Harmer was bowled with the delivery landing well outside the leg-stump and going onto hit the top of off-stump. But that sort of thing is unlikely to happen at the Kotla, where the spinners will need more patience as the turn will be slower.
For a change, Jadeja could prove to be a tad more effective on this track with his immaculate line and length bowling just like Delhi found a potent weapon in left-arm orthodox spinner Manan Sharma, who took 21 wickets from four Ranji matches at this ground.
If India’s bowlers have won them the series, the form of the batsmen have been a major cause for concern. Murali Vijay, with 195 runs, is head and shoulders above the rest of the pack in terms of runs scored as well as quality of batsmanship. With 160 runs, Cheteshwar Pujara comes a close second.
Unbelievable it may sound but only two batsmen – Vijay and Pujara – have scored half-centuries in the four completed innings so far. Even more baffling is that none of the other top-order batsmen have been able to accumulate 100 runs in the series. It is well-known that the Indians are acclaimed for their technique against the turning deliveries.
It’s not always that a winning combination is tinkered with but Kohli made an exception during the series. Even after the Mohali victory, Amit Mishra had to make way for Stuart Binny in Bengaluru. And in Nagpur, it was Rohit Sharma, the extra batsman who was drafted in place of Binny, while Mishra replaced Varun Aaron.
Kotla has always had something for the seamers during the first hour of every December morning.
Ishant Sharma likes these conditions but one will have to wait to find out whether Binny or Aaron make a comeback in the playing XI or they persist with Rohit, who looked good during his brief knock of 23 in the second innings.
For the South Africans, Dale Steyn’s availability is still under cloud and Morne Morkel could again shoulder the burden of leading the inexperienced attack.
The visitors predictably have AB de Villiers at the top of the run scorers’ list with 173 runs to his credit. No marks for guessing that he is the only batsman who has scored both the half-centuries for his side. The side will take some confidence from the dogged partnership in the last game between Faf du Plessis and skipper Hashim Amla, who has been out of sorts during this tour.
There is every possibility that opener Stiaan van Zyl, who has totalled 56 runs in five innings will get the boot. South African assistant coach Adrian Birrell admitted that there could be a couple of changes in the side.
The two specialist slow bowlers — leg-spinner Imran Tahir (12 wickets) and off-spinner Simon Harmer (10 wickets) have been South Africa’s most successful. However, they have not been as consistent as their Indian counterparts.
While Morkel bowled lion-heartedly in Nagpur and effortlessly got reverse swing, Kagiso Rabada, at best, could be termed inconsistent. With Merchant De Lange and Kyle Abbott waiting in the wings, Russell Domingo and Amla will have to contemplate a lot on their playing XI.
Overall, India are overwhelming favourites going into the match.
Virat Kohli (captain), Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Rohit Sharma, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Amit Mishra, Ishant Sharma, Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav, Lokesh Rahul, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Gurkeerat Singh Mann, Stuart Binny
Hashim Amla (captain), AB de Villiers, Stiaan van Zyl, Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy, Dane Vilas (wk), Simon Harmer, Imran Tahir, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Styen, Temba Bavuma, Merchant de Lange, Kyle Abbott, Dane Piedt.