The South Africa series will be India’s penultimate scheduled stop before the T20 World Cup in 2024, thus leaving plenty of questions to be answered.
The T20I series against South Africa begins from January 10 onwards in Durban, the same city which had witnessed Yuvraj Singh’s iconic 6-sixes moment in one of India’s group-stage ties en route to a World T20 title claim in 2007, and ahead of the match, we take a look at how the three-match contest could shape India’s World Cup team.
Battle of the openers – Shubman Gill vs Yashasvi Jaiswal vs Ruturaj Gaikwad
One of the biggest question that needs to be answered over the course of this series, is who will be the first-choice openers for the T20 World Cup. Remember, Rohit, who has not been part of the T20I side since November 2022, has extended his period of hiatus for the duration of the South Africa series as well, with the India captain yet to decide on his future in the shortest format. This implies, India have three options to select from.
Jaiswal and Gaikwad were given the entire five-match T20I series against Australia to prove their worth and they returned with impressive numbers. The latter scored 223 runs in five innings at a strike rate of 159.28 which included an unbeaten 123 and a half-century knock as well. The left-handed Jaiswal may not have amassed as many runs (138 runs in five innings with a fifty) as Gaikwad, but it was his strike rate of 168.29 that stood out.
India however will have to drop one of them in a bid to accommodate Gill, who was rested for the Australia matches after an arduous World Cup campaign. The 24-year-old had made his debut in the format earlier this year, and after a quite start, smashed a record 126* before scripting a 900-run IPL season for Gujarat Titans.
What about Ishan Kishan?
India have another opening option in Ishan, but the 25-year-old seems to be falling behind in reckoning for a spot in the first XI. Unlike any other player in the squad, Ishan tends to provide a flexibility to the management. He can open, bat at No. 3, play in the middle-order as well and is a left-hander. Not to forget, is is also a wicketkeeper, and with Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson not in the World Cup plans, Ishan should have had the edge. But selectors also have KL Rahul to go back to, who has been rested for this T20I series after missing the Australia contest, and have a fresh talent in Jitesh Sharma to look forward to.
Ishan’s T20I numbers have not been impressive either. In the 10 innings he opened for India since the last World Cup, he managed only 143 runs at 14.30 with a strike rate of 95.33. However, in the last IPL, he scored 454 runs in 15 innings as an opener for Mumbai Indians at a strike rate of 142.8 with three fifties.
to-back fifties at an impressive strike rate before making way for Shreyas Iyer, who smashed a 37-ball 53 in the final game in Bengaluru.
Who will be the finisher: Rinku Singh’s competitor identified
The toughest task in a T20 game is to prove as a finisher, but Rinku has performed the task to his fullest. Following up a successful IPL 2023 campaign for KKR, Rinku was an absolute revelation in the series against Australia, where he smashed 105 runs in 60 balls (175 SR) across four innings with 13 boundaries and four sixes. But has he 100 per cent staked his claim as a finisher?
Jitesh was given only two opportunities against Australia, both at No. 6, and he scored 59 runs in 35 balls, at 168.57 strike rate, with four boundaries and as many sixes.
India still have their money on Hardik Pandya, but will a sixth-bowler be identified?
India seem to have their hopes pinned on Hardik’s return to fitness for the Afghanistan T20I series in January, with the all-rounder still nursing from the ankle injury which he incurred during the ODI World Cup. However, if the World Cup final loss is anything to prove, India need a back-up for Hardik. If not a like-for-like replacement, given that fast-bowling all-rounders are a rarity, one of the top-order batters could be identified as a sixth-bowling option, an opportunity that was let gone in the Australia series. Tilak Varma is one of those options. With his right-arm offbreak variety, he had picked up a wicket each in the only two innings he bowled for India in the format.
Ravi Bishnoi vs Kuldeep Yadav
With Ravindra Jadeja back, as a vice-captain, in the India T20I side, the management will have to decide between Bishnoi and Kuldeep for the role of the primary spinner. Bishnoi recently recorded a stellar outing against Australia where he picked nine wickets at a strike rate of 13.3 and was named the Player of the Series as well. Kuldeep, on the other hand, has been exceptional in the format since his return post the last T20 World Cup. He has picked eight wickets in seven innings during the period at an economical rate of 5.64
Who will accompany Bumrah and Siraj?
With Shami’s T20I career reportedly over, it is Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj who are the first-choice pacers for the XI. This leaves the competition among Mukesh Kumar, Arshdeep Singh and Deepak Chahar for the third-seamer role. Mukesh and Arshdeep stand ahead in the race with India look for a death-over bowler. Both picked four wickets apiece against Australia with the former being slightly economical (9.12 against 10.68). Mukesh was also the better bowler in the slog overs, having conceded at 8.57 runs per over in picking two wickets as against Arshdeep’s 11.67. Chahar, who made a comeback in the Australia series after a long injury lay off, played only one match before leaving on personal grounds. The fast bowler will be yearning to make the most of the South Africa series to bounce back in reckoning for a spot.