India start the series as favourites - even Dale Steyn concedes that - but they also start the series with tough selection calls. In the last Test they played, they were without both their first-choice openers, and one replacement - a makeshift opener - scored a century, carried his bat, and took the Man-of-the-Match award. The other replacement scored a hundred earlier in the series. Their leading fast bowler is out of the first Test with a one-match ban. They have been playing with only five specialist batsmen of late, but can they afford to do so against Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander at the start of a big series. If they do play only four specialist bowlers, will they have any reservations against playing just the one quick?
Two days before the Test, team director Ravi Shastri spoke about a few of these issues. The number of bowlers, he said, depended on the conditions underfoot and overhead. Sri Lanka was oppressively hot so India needed that extra bowler there. It has cooled down in India's November now, and if the pitches turn as asked, India could beef up their batting and go with just four bowlers. The big question, then, is will this new leadership team of Virat Kohli and Shastri, who have shown an inclination towards pace, be okay with playing just the one quick?
"Tomorrow you can play four spinners if you give me a pitch that will turn on the first day," an emphatic Shastri said. "No rule that you have to play a fast bowler. West Indies played four fast bowlers in their time. No spinners. What stops a team from playing four spinners if you get a track of that kind?"
"Home conditions," Shastri added mischievously.
So that still remains a riddle because Shastri said he hadn't seen the pitch, and it is the pitch that will decide whether India play four bowlers or five. So let us start by eliminating players based on the nets session. What happens in the nets is not always conclusive, but KL Rahul, Varun Aaron and Bhuvneshwar Kumar can be ruled out for the moment. The two fast bowlers bowled at stumps in a side net as the others practiced at the main nets, and Rahul's lack of activity sits consistent with Shastri's backing of Shikhar Dhawan, who has had a rough ODI series but has scored three hundreds in his last three first-class matches, two of them Tests.
"That's a mistake people make here," Shastri said. "They mix Test form with one-day cricket form. Test form, he comes on the back of two hundreds in two matches. So is he in form or is he out of form? For me he is very much in form. And hot. If you remind me of that 187 against Australia [in India's last Test in Mohali, which was also Dhawan's debut], that I am sure will be in his mind, and will help him."
Shastri said it was a big series and compared it with the one against Australia in 2000-01 - a young Indian team against world-beaters - and added that the pressure was equally on South Africa because they are the No. 1 side and have not lost an away series in nine years.
There is every chance India might not take the big risk of playing just five specialist batsmen. That might also save them the happy headache of having to choose between Cheteshwar Pujara, who scored a hundred in his last Test as a replacement opener, and Rohit Sharma, in whom they have invested time and Tests because they see something in him. Both had proper stints with the bat in the nets, so it is safe to say neither of them is out of contention at the moment.
Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra look primed to join R Ashwin, who is "absolutely fine" now, which means India could have only Umesh Yadav as the pace bowler. There is an out-of-the-box thought that Stuart Binny could be added as the extra pacer at the expense of Pujara or Rohit. Binny wasn't present at the nets, though. Jadeja and Binny both finished their Ranji Trophy matches, but Jadeja was playing in Delhi and Binny in Jaipur. Delhi is better connected and closer to Chandigarh.
With only one more nets session to go before the first Test of the series, there are plenty of permutations and combinations. The team won't divulge their thought process because they don't want the opposition to get any clues. Another way of looking at it, albeit simplistic, is that one-and-a-half days before the Test, only 12 players had proper stints at the nets. One of them, Ishant Sharma, is banned from playing the first Test. That leaves six specialist batsmen including Dhawan, Pujara and Rohit, a wicketkeeper in Saha, three spinners and Umesh Yadav.