January 5-9, 2018
Start time 10:30 local (08:30GMT)
Cullinan: If South Africa want to play Steyn, play him now
Daryll Cullinan discusses South Africa and India's possible combinations before the first Test at Newlands
There is a feeling of reverse deja vu in the air. Two years and two months ago, with Diwali festivities in the air, South Africa seemed like they were the only people working in India, preparing for what proved to be an embarrassing Test series. The Indian players were dancing at Harbhajan Singh's wedding at the same time, and sauntered into the Mohali nets only two days before the Test. Back then, South Africa fretted over the conditions, and said Daljit Singh, the curator, had done India's work already.
This last week in Cape Town, India have been working hard, sometimes two sessions a day, on New Year's Eve too, to acclimatise to the conditions in the best way possible. South Africa, meanwhile, spent time with families - Hashim Amla caught sniffles from the little ones in the family - and had missed their first training session only three days before the Test. India's players are calling the pitch "quite green", the South Africa coach Ottis Gibson calls it exactly what they wanted. Back then, India's coach Ravi Shastri didn't rule out playing four spinners, now Vernon Philander doesn't rule out four quicks.
Hopefully it is not all about the pitch. It is hard to remember an India team travelling to South Africa with so much hope. Thy have lost only two Tests in the last three years, which included tours to Sri Lanka and the Caribbean. They have got a set of fast bowlers with diverse skills and better fitness than any before them. They have got batsmen at the height of their powers, and with enough experience of having travelled for tough series.
There are not making a big deal of the conditions. They chose to not train on the day before the Test. It is hard to tell how the pitch will play anyway; there have been greener pitches with loads of runs at Newlands. That in mind, India have prepared hard, and are hoping to adapt to whatever the conditions throw at them.
South Africa themselves haven't had the best of time with their players' health. Amla was the third to go down with viral illness after captain Faf du Plessis and Dale Steyn missed the Boxing Day Test against Zimbabwe. Steyn and Philander are anyway making comebacks from long injury layoffs. They still start as favourites, but they will also know they have lost Tests - not dead rubbers - to India on two of their last three visits and came close to losing one on the third.
Pitch preparation alone won't win you Tests. India had superior spinners and a better lower order back in 2015-16. And if South Africa do - as indications suggest - opt for designer tracks, it does put extra pressure on them, leaving India with not much to lose and also bringing their seam bowlers into play. India know the feeling well: a rank turner backfired on them in Pune last year.
South Africa WWWLL (last five completed games most recent first)
Rich experience, better balance make India formidable
We look at the current Test side and compare it with the previous Indian Test squad that toured South Africa in 2013-14
In the spotlight
On the first day of India's last Test series in South Africa, on a track on which the ball seamed around early in the match, Virat Kohli set the tone with a superlative hundred. He comes back with great form and sky-high confidence. India will need him at his best to put the pressure back on the bowlers after watchful starts from M Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara.
Vernon Philander is expected to do the job R Ashwin did for India in the last series. The conditions will suit him, and he will be expected to keep nagging away at that fourth-stump line with a little bit of seam movement each way. He is two wickets away from 100 at home, and averages under 19.
South Africa are less sure than India. Du Plessis has called this the most difficult selection: he might have to choose between AB de Villiers and Temba Bavuma, Andile Phehlukwayo and Chris Morris, and Steyn and Morne Morkel. And then there could be a whole new combination wherein they don't play an allrounder at all.
Right now they are likely to play a seam-bowling allrounder - in large part due to the question marks over the fitness of their returning quicks. They do not want to be in a situation where one of them breaks down, and then they are left with just two quicks and a spinner. Bavuma or de Villiers may have to sit out if either Phehlukwayo or Morris plays. Du Plessis is back and will captain the side. Keeping transformation targets in consideration, if Morris plays, de Villiers might sit out, and Bavuma might miss out if Phehlukwayo plays.
Steyn is five wickets short of becoming South Africa's most prolific bowler, but he might just have to wait for his opportunity as South Africa will have to choose between him and Morne Morkel, who displayed fine form in the match against Zimbabwe.
South Africa: (probable) 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Faf du Plessis (capt), 5 AB de Villiers/Temba Bavuma 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Andile Phehlukwayo/Chris Morris, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Dale Steyn/Morne Morkel, 11 Keshav Maharaj
Viral illness to Ravindra Jadeja has made one decision for India on the spin front. However, Shikhar Dhawan has been declared fit, and India will have to choose between his aggression and left-handness, and KL Rahul's more solid but less explosive game. Umesh Yadav is likely to be the one to miss out among the fast bowlers. The other selection choice to be made is between Rohit Sharma and Hardik Pandya. Again that depends on the conditions. The more bowling-friendly the pitch, the likelier Rohit is to play.
India: (probable) 1 M Vijay, 2 Shikhar Dhawan/KL Rahul, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Rohit Sharma/Hardik Pandya, 7 Wriddhiman Saha (wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Mohammed Shami
Pitch and conditions
One of the indicators of a good pitch is when you don't know what you want to do if you win the toss. This Newlands pitch has that quality. Normally you want to bat first, as teams have done in 44 of the 54 Tests here, but with a decent amount of grass left on it, and if the table cloth covers the mountain between the toss and the start of the match, you could end up getting bundled out. Sides losing the toss have won more Newlands Tests than the ones winning: 22 to 21.
To go with the grass, there are vertical cracks on the pitch, reminding one journalist of the 47 all out game here, but Philander said that pitch actually looked flatter than this and that at Newlands it was more about the overheads. If there is a north-westerly blowing, the ball moves around a lot more. If there is a cloud cover, things get difficult for the batsmen. Only the first and the fourth days of the Test are forecast to be cloudy and breezy.
Stats and Trivia
Faf du Plessis has captained South Africa in seven home Tests, winning six and drawing one
If he can take five wickets in this Test, Mohammed Shami will join Irfan Pathan as the second-fastest India fast bowler to 100 Test wickets
Historically Newlands has been the most productive South African venue for spinners, with 506 wickets going to them at an average of 33.07. Kingsmead has offered them a better average, 28.73, but 122 fewer wickets in 11 fewer Tests.
"I don't know when the next Test series against India is, but it's probably the last time all of us [the senior lot] play against India and there's no better way than playing a series in South Africa. We were disappointed the last time we went there, and we've got a score to settle so we're excited for this series."
Faf du Plessis has not forgotten the 3-0 drubbing in India
"We are very very confident about our preparation. We got four-five days here but out of those days we made sure we got plenty out of it. And all the boys are in a positive state of mind."
Sanjay Bangar, India's batting coach, says India are ready