India hopefuls gear up for an African recce
The LC de Villiers Oval in Pretoria is about an hour's drive from the Wanderers in Johannesburg. Most of the 16 India A players will be hoping they can perform impressively enough at the former over the next three weeks, so that they can make it to the latter for a Test match three months later. The hopes will be highest for a bunch of middle-order batsmen, all of whom have played international cricket, but for whom a Test spot remains an uncertainty, despite at least two vacancies.
Leading this bunch will be a man who, just over a year ago, was part of a similar group of hopefuls on a plane to West Indies, and was looking to restart his international career that began with a lot of promise but had been halted by injury. Cheteshwar Pujara had won a Test debut for India in 2010, impressing the selectors enough to make India's previous trip to South Africa but had required surgery after a knee injury in the following IPL.
There were ten home Tests lined up in 2012-13. That was as good an opportunity as he would ever get to establish himself, but Pujara had missed over a year, his debut now only a memory. The A tour to West Indies in June 2012 was his chance, just like it was for many others. A superlative effort arrived in the first unofficial Test - 50 followed by an unbeaten 96 in a chase of 186, after India A were 77 for 6 and 115 for 8.
The Test recall came, and Pujara has averaged 82.53 since, with two double centuries, and two big hundreds. While the Caribbean experience may not have helped much in tackling the attacks of England, Australia and New Zealand, West Indies was where Pujara began his comeback. He's now India's first choice as Test No 3, and surely has to be the leading example and motivation for those still on the fringe. The man who has been rested for this A tour, Virat Kohli, is first choice as Test No 5. The No 6 position is still open, as it has been since Sourav Ganguly's retirement in 2008. If no one has claimed No 6 as yet, it also leaves the reserve middle-order batsman's slot open.
There are as many as five batsmen who would want to stake claims for both vacancies in Pretoria, with an eye also on the No. 4 spot that will fall vacant, after decades, in the near future. Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma were among the hopefuls along with Pujara last year in West Indies. Both remain hopefuls as far as Tests are concerned, and in Rahane's case, limited-overs as well. Ambati Rayudu has finally discovered there are no easy international runs, even if the opposition is Zimbabwe. The first ball to Suresh Raina is still invariably short, but somehow he still finds himself in contention for a Test berth.
MS Dhoni's leviathan presence has left Dinesh Karthik with no choice but to compete as a specialist batsman, but with Wriddhiman Saha also in the squad, it is to be seen who will be preferred for the two unofficial Tests.
The openers may appear to have much less at stake in Pretoria. M Vijay had two centuries in his previous Test series. Shikhar Dhawan's form has continued unabated ever since his unforgettable Test debut in March. However, Vijay's record in Tests outside the subcontinent is a highest of 45 in eight innings. Dhawan has played one Test, at home, and his run in limited-overs has been aided by missed chances in several innings. Gautam Gambhir was recalled for the final Test against Australia before being ruled out due to jaundice, and there will ideally be space for three openers on the tour to South Africa in November, but Vijay and Dhawan could not have asked for a better chance to seal the first two spots.
India know it is the batsmen who need the reconnaissance sojourn more than the bowlers, and that is why three frontline fast bowlers and spinners are not part of this squad. The selectors may or may not go back to a reportedly rejuvenated Zaheer Khan. Moreover, given how frequently someone like Umesh Yadav breaks down, this might even mean two spots opening up in November for Jaydev Unadkat, Mohammed Shami, Ishwar Pandey and Siddarth Kaul.
After South Africa, the senior India side tours New Zealand, England and Australia in 2014. Who knows who might do a Pujara in Pretoria, push his way into the Test side and go on to establish himself over those four overseas contests? It could be a batsman who has been as overdue for runs as Rohit is, or someone as raw as Pandey and Kaul are. Therein lies the beauty of these A tours.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo