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Are the Indians, favourites this time in South Africa?

Forget the one sided Ashes series in Australia during this summer. Another blockbuster series awaits on Boxing Day, with the commencement of India’s tour of South Africa. South Africa remains the only place where the Indian Test side are yet to win, but this time they will feel the wait must end. South Africa are still in a rebuilding period, but at home they still possess many strengths.

The fact that India is continuing with this series is commendable, with omicron ripping through at the moment. The series will be played behind closed doors.

The India squad has a couple of notable absences. One is the newly appointed Test vice-captain Rohit Sharma, who was India’s best batsman in England. Another is premier all-rounder Ravi Jadeja. That will mean that the team combination will be slightly different. Shubman Gill is also unavailable due to injury.

Ajinkya Rahane was dropped for the second Test against New Zealand (though the BCCI cited it as injury) and he has been relieved of vice-captaincy duties, and he still shouldn’t make the side. Likewise, Cheteshwar Pujara is on his last legs. Another poor series could be curtains for him. Virat Kohli is back to his most successful overseas conditions as his quest for a long-awaited century continues. He averages 55.80 and 87.70 in Tests and ODIs respectively in SA.

Former Indian wicket-keeper-batsman Saba Karim on Saturday backed the Virat Kohli-led Indian team to script history in South Africa in the impending three-match Test series which begins from December 26 onwards, opining that it is the team's "golden opportunity".

Karim also predicted the scoreline for the much-awaited series. South Africa remains the only country India are yet to win a Test in. They have previously played seven Test series in South Africa since their maiden tour to the Rainbow Nation in 1992/93 season. South Africa won six of those contests while one ended in a draw, back in 2010/11, when the hosts had levelled the series with an innings victory in the decider after MS Dhoni's men scripted an 87-run win in Durban. Karim, who is a former India selector, in conversation with Sports Tiger, predicted that India is likely to win the Test series.

"Either 2-0 or 2-1 (in Tests). In ODI we are anyway a far superior side," he said.

The kind of bench strength that India along with an experienced set-up adds to the team's possibility of a maiden Test series win in South Africa. The bench strength is immensely strong and proof of that was shown by them in Australia. India won the fourth Test without five or six of our regular players. That shows the kind of strength that India have got in the reserves.

The expectation will be similar this time around and it will be a golden opportunity to win the series with this experienced set up. Adding to it are some potentially exciting youngsters who are coming through to the team. It will be an ideal combination for us to do well in South Africa.

However former Indian opener, Wasim Jaffer reckon that the Team India should go with a ‘7+4’ composition featuring seven batters and four bowlers. The Mumbaikar cited the example of India’s batting woes in the previous South Africa tour. Jaffer pointed out that India had crossed the 250-run mark only once in six innings and hence suffered a series loss despite picking all 20 wickets in all three matches. Jaffer said India should go with an extra batter in the red-ball battle against South Africa.

When it comes to the bowling group, he went with three pacers and one spinner in the form of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj and Ravichandran Ashwin.

They will be quarantined in their hotels for the month, leaving only for matches and training sessions.

"Sometimes I feel (a) bio-bubble helps the team environment where you end up spending more time with the team players, you are in the team room, you are having more team dinners together," India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara said.

"So, overall, I feel sometimes it helps the team environment. "Yes, there are some challenges as well," he added. "You are not allowed to go out, you cannot explore the country. But at the same time, you are getting to play some cricket and that's the most important thing being a cricketer."

However, South Africa Test Captain Dean Elgar believes the hosts will go into the three-match Test series against India as favourites. Elgar predicted a close series against a strong opposition led by Virat Kohli.

The first Test begins at SuperSport Park in Centurion on December 26. Elgar said, “I think we are still the favourites going into the home series. Even though we haven’t played a lot of cricket in recent times, we have been good in what we have played. Anything can happen in Test cricket and India certainly is a very good side. Virat would no doubt want to come and beat South Africa in South Africa. This series is going to be so good. I can’t wait for it to start.”

Former South African pacer Makhaya Ntini believes the hosts will go into the three-match Test series against India as favourites while his former teammate Allan Donald feels the inexperienced South African batting will be put to Test by Team India's bowling attack.

His counterpart Allan Donald, on the other hand, said that the IND vs SA series will be a contest of two good bowling sides and the team that bats better are likely to end up on the winning side "Both teams line up really well, both have strong bowling line-ups and that will mean the batting on both sides will be tested. Our batting has lost some key players in the last couple of seasons. There's no hiding from the fact that it's a young line-up and they will be tested by the Indian attack. For me, that is where the series will be decided. In the last few seasons, we haven't scored enough runs and that will be the challenge. If we can put the runs on the board, we undoubtedly have the bowlers who can take 20 wickets."

Despite being the favourites, India will be without the services of Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel for the series. Rohit, who was named as the new vice-captain in Tests, is presently recovering from a hamstring injury and has been ruled out of the Test series. He has been replaced by India A skipper Priyank Panchal while KL Rahul has been named the stand-in vice-captain for the series.

Rohit is expected to be fit for the ODI series which will begin in January.

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