Towering giants in the sub-continent, India would be aiming to assert themselves as good travellers when they face South Africa in the opening chapter of a 12-Test overseas challenge, starting in Cape Town on Friday.
The three-Test South Africa series is the first of a gruelling 2018-19 season that includes tours to England and Australia.
The assignments are being seen as a make or break season for Virat Kohli and his men to prove their worth as a good travelling unit.
But for this, they will have to rely heavily on their pacers to come good.
As the numero uno Test side, India have a healthy points’ lead over second-ranked South Africa and will not lose their crown even if they lose by a landslide 0-3 margin. This, however, is not merely about points and rankings for Kohli’s side.
The Proteas will be relying on their formidable fast bowling attack to dismantle India’s strong batting line-up, but after nine successive Test series wins, India are brimming with confidence and a belief that they can thrive in any conditions.
Six of India’s series wins have come at home and three others æ two in Sri Lanka and one in the West Indies — were in favourable conditions.
India last lost a series in 2014-15 when they were beaten 2-0 in Australia in a four-Test contest.
India boast of a poor record in South Africa as they lost five out of six series with one drawn.
Since 1992, India have only won two out of 17 Tests played on South African soil — in 2006-07 under Rahul Dravid and in 2010-11 under M.S. Dhoni.
Significantly, though, the Indians have pushed South Africa hard on their two most recent tours — in 2010-11 and 2013-14, sharing the first series and narrowly losing the second.
Thirteen players of India’s 2013-14 side are part of the current squad they have become a vastly more experienced team, which has become accustomed to winning.
As fas as the venue is concerned, India have never won in four Tests here at Newlands, losing twice and drawing on the other two occasions.
And it remains to be seen if Kohli can do one better, in not only winning a third-ever Test in the Proteas’ backyard but also setting a noteworthy tone for India’s arduous overseas cycle.
This time around, India boasts of a potent pace attack which is capable of dismantling any batting side.
Despite the prevalent drought here, the green-top Newlands wicket continues to be at the centre of attention.
Given the pitch laid out for this first Test, India will go in with at least three pacers. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami are likely to get the nod.
Ravindra Jadeja is a doubtful starter owing to viral illness and this puts R Ashwin in contention to take the lone spinner’s spot in the playing eleven.
India are also likely to opt for an extra in-form batsman in Rohit Sharma while Hardik Pandya could provide the all-round flavour to the team composition.
India’s batting line-up picks itself. Shikhar Dhawan has been declared fit and he would be the first-choice opener along with Murali Vijay ahead of KL Rahul.
Despite his lack of runs, it is unfathomable that India will leave out vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane in the very first Test of this overseas cycle.
Rohit didn’t feature in Kolkata Test against Sri Lanka when India last played on a green-top wicket. But since then, he has brought himself into contention with three hundreds across all formats.
Just like India, South Africa too have selection dilemmas.
Dale Steyn has been declared fit in the build-up to the first Test but the pacer is not a confirmed starter. Of late the Proteas have fielded a three-plus-one combination with left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj complimenting the pacers.
Thus, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel are obvious choices as the hosts too want to play an extra batsman given the anticipated quick nature of the pitch.
With Quinton de Kock recovering from his hamstring strain, South Africa have only one concern regarding their batting line-up and it is about fitting in AB de Villiers.
De Villiers was the stand-in captain versus Zimbabwe, but since then Faf du Plessis has regained full fitness. But the hosts are keen to play their talismanic batsman and could drop an all-rounder to fit in de Villiers.
In turn, this inadvertently closes the door on Steyn, who is just returning from a career-threatening injury he suffered while playing against Australia in November 2016.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Hardik Pandya, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Parthiv Patel.
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (c), Deal Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyne, Quinton de Kock (wk), Keshav Maharaj, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Chris Morris, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Andile Phehlukwayo.
Match starts at: 2pm IST.