Since South Africa’s readmission to international cricket in 1992, India have won two of 17 Test matches played on their soil. They have lost eight and managed to draw seven; they are yet to win a Test series in South Africa.

“Apart from Australia, I don’t think any team has dominated in South Africa. So this is certainly the hardest challenge," says Gautam Gambhir, who was part of the Indian team which came close to winning a series in 2010-11. The first of the three-Test series against South Africa starts on Friday in Cape Town.

India are currently No.1 (124 rating points) and South Africa No.2 (111 rating points) in the International Cricket Council’s (ICC’s) official Test rankings. On paper, at least, both teams can boast of equal firepower, with four batsmen from India and five from the host featuring among the top 20 in the ICC rankings.

However, five of the top 20 bowlers in the ICC rankings are South Africans; only three Indians feature in this list. Two of them, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, are not even assured of a place in the playing eleven because of the conditions which will favour the host.

Hardik Pandya in Mumbai before heading to South Africa on 28 December. Photo: PTI
Hardik Pandya in Mumbai before heading to South Africa on 28 December. Photo: PTI

“I believe India should go with five bowlers, which is an attacking move and tells opposition that we are here to win and not draw a match," says Gambhir.

India’s bowling attack has improved significantly over the last few years, and, with versatile bowlers in its ranks, the team is now less bothered about pitches.

“It’s a huge plus that we have so many options," says vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane. “The captain, coach and team are confident that now they don’t have to worry about (if someone is injured)."

South Africa have a formidable fast-bowling line-up—Dale Steyn, back from a long injury break (though he is unlikely to feature in the first Test), Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel—but don’t have any replacement for an all-rounder like Jacques Kallis (his batting average was closer to Tendulkar’s and bowling average, closer to Zaheer Khan’s).

India lost the last two-match Test series (2013-14) in South Africa 0-1, but it wasn’t a one-sided affair. Prior to that, on two previous tours, they had squandered opportunities to win a Test series.

Part of the reason could be history—it took India four tours to win their first Test in South Africa and they have never managed to win two Test matches in a series. This is one country where Indian batsmen have not been able to dominate the bowling attack for a sustained period.

None of the modern batting greats like Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, Sourav Ganguly or Rahul Dravid averaged above 50 in South Africa. Cheteshwar Pujara (average 70), Rahane (69.66) and Virat Kohli (68) had a good series when they toured the last time in 2013-14, but a repeat act can’t be taken for granted.

For example, despite his exceptional away record, Dravid had just one good series in 1996-97, his first tour of South Africa. Thereafter, he could only score a half-century in his next 16 innings. A batting average of below 30 (29.71) in South Africa doesn’t compare favourably with his overall average of 52.31.

“This team has toured Australia, England and New Zealand together and we are a confident bunch," adds Rahane. “We are positive as we are aware of the conditions and expectations. I don’t think there is any added pressure. On the contrary, I relish the challenge of batting in difficult conditions."

Former Australian captain Adam Gilchrist, who was in India recently, says: “This is a strong Indian team, but, across the world, there are not too many teams winning away (from home). South Africa is a challenging place to play but the way Kohli leads the team with belief, this team will go a long way."

India have lost five of the six Test series played against South Africa and only once managed to draw a series—1-1 in 2010. Yet, few are holding on to this past record while judging the Indian team’s chances.

Also read: India’s tour of South Africa: Excitement has replaced anxiety

“It’s hard to predict the outcome but there’s definitely potential (to win) and the main reason for this optimism is captain Kohli," says former India captain Kapil Dev.

Kohli has notched up six scores of over 200 in the last 18 months and hit 610 runs in five innings against Sri Lanka in the just concluded series.

“You know everyone in this team has a distinct style. We feel every player is No.1 in his position. The No.3 is best in that position, No.4 is best and so on till No.11. That is the reason why this team has become No.1 in Test cricket," asserts Rahane.

He struggled in the Tests against Sri Lanka—scoring 17 runs in five innings—but his reputation away from home is undiminished. Rahane has scored six of his nine centuries outside India, and averages nearly 20 runs more per innings—53.44 to 33.63. The only thing missing is a Test hundred in South Africa—which he missed narrowly on the last trip (he made 96 at Durban).

“Self-belief helps win half the battle. The skills of both teams are almost same but people expect us to win. It is because of how we dominated in all formats of the game. I have always believed that if we start well, the momentum is going to stay with us," says Rahane.

Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.

He tweets @vimalwa.

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