Sri Lanka might have done South Africa a favour. All those runs Rohit Sharma scored against them - a hundred and two fifties in the Tests, a third ODI double-century and a T20I century - led to his selection ahead of the accomplished No. 5 Ajinkya Rahane, who has the best all-conditions record among India's current batsmen. Rohit scored 11 and 10, and looked uncomfortable against the pace and movement of South Africa's fast bowlers.
Sri Lanka also kept taking out Rahane early, consigning him to his first series without a meaningful contribution. It was anticipated that all the poor series would have done was put Rahane under pressure in case he failed in the first Test in South Africa. India, however, didn't even give him that first chance.
"Well, we decided to go on current form," India's captain Virat Kohli said. "Rohit had scored runs in the last three Test matches that he has played, and he was batting well, even in the series against Sri Lanka. We did that similar thing in the past with Shikhar [Dhawan] as well. Look, these things can always be looked at in hindsight - thinking what if or what if not. But we decided to go with this combination, and current form was definitely the criteria."
The first of Rohit's three most recent Tests before this one actually came in October 2016, which means the "current" form Kohli spoke of wasn't entirely current. India have received widespread criticism for dropping one of their most reliable batsmen in these kinds of conditions, and getting influenced in part by Rohit's sensational limited-overs form. Kohli didn't speak of any limited-overs runs, but the fact remains that Rohit's recent Test runs had also come when he walked in at 410 for 4, 365 for 4 and 144 for 4 while setting up a declaration. It is arguable whether Rohit has any prior experience of contributing big runs in seaming conditions and without a good top-order platform to build on.
Another contentious selection in the Test was that of Dhawan ahead of KL Rahul. This selection had seemed a foregone conclusion as India flew to South Africa, but a late injury to Dhawan seemed to have pushed him out of contention. However, two days before the Test, Dhawan declared himself fit, and two training sessions later he was back in the XI. In his press conference, Kohli spoke a lot about batting with intent, but that, he said, was not the reason why Dhawan was preferred over Rahul.
"Well, the left-hander always helps, that's what we felt," Kohli said, explaining that selection. "They have got two, including Quinton [de Kock], in their batting order. I mean it's difficult for the bowlers to set their lines and lengths every time with the strike rotating well. It has worked for us in the recent past, that's something definitely is a combination that a lot of international sides want to go with these days, because you don't want the bowlers to settle against one kind of batsmen and one line and length, especially with the new ball. We have to try and create plans that we feel will not let the opposition gain momentum very early on in the game and that's the idea behind it."
Dhawan played two ordinary shots to get out for a pair of 16s. He also dropped a sitter at third slip, which cost India plenty: Keshav Maharaj, the beneficiary, went from 0 to 35 in the first innings and was involved in valuable lower-order partnerships. All of Dhawan's current form too is runs against Sri Lanka before which he had been dropped from the squad that was travelling to Sri Lanka. Then it emerged that M Vijay had not recovered enough from an earlier injury, which gave Dhawan a look-in, and he grabbed the opportunity with two quick hundreds in that series.