Kohli expects India to 'do something special' in 'most challenging' South African conditions
No warm-up games to acclimatise - India captain says centre-wicket practice and match simulation should do the trick for visitors
India are yet to win a Test series in South Africa. But India's think tank, led by Rahul Dravid and Virat Kohli, have in the past got a taste of Test success in the country, both in Johannesburg, in 2006 and in 2018 respectively. And this time, Kohli feels India can cross the line and "do something special" if they can get their confidence game right.
The team's quest to win a series, however, has just become that much more challenging, because unlike in Australia late last year or in England earlier this summer, India won't have any warm-up games and acclimatisation time. It's a bit like what they did when they last toured South Africa: land, train, and play.
"As much as centre-wicket practice as possible, match simulation," Kohli said of the team's plans. "Those kinds of things really help when you play in conditions that are in my opinion the most challenging, because of the pace and bounce on offer.
"And the conditions can be tricky with swing as well, we've seen that in South Africa. So as much simulation as we can have, understanding which areas we're hitting the ball, getting into good shapes, with the bowlers as well, with slips set in place, what areas they want to bowl, cut down easy singles, boundary options - all those things help you get into a good space when you have no warm-up games."
India will begin this tough examination without two key players: Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja. Rohit, the designated Test vice-captain, is out with a hamstring injury; Jadeja has a forearm injury. Rohit leaves a void at the top, Jadeja's absence could affect team balance.
"That [Johannesburg win in 2018] should give us a lot of confidence that if we have the right mindset, and we start off the series with confidence and belief we can stand up to any challenge that comes our way and take a lot of heart from it"Virat Kohli
"Will miss his abilities a lot," Kohli said of Rohit. "He's proven in England already that he's really worked his Test game out, and the opening partnership was very important for us to play in that series. Obviously, with his experience and skill, we will miss those qualities. That said, it's an opportunity for Mayank [Agarwal] and KL [Rahul] to step up and solidify that start for us and make sure the good work is carried on in this series.
"Jadeja is a very important player for us, he contributes to all three departments, which is invaluable overseas, and he will be missed. That said, we do have the quality in the side to be able to create the best combination possible and still be able to win Test matches, because we've created that bench strength and environment where people coming in are seizing opportunities, grabbing it with both hands, and making sure the team is helped by their performances. As much as we'll miss him, it won't be a deciding factor."
That 2018 tour, which India lost 2-1, Kohli said, was the start of a new era in terms of setting the benchmark for Indian touring teams. Their Test win in Johannesburg on that tour, Kohli felt, "came in the toughest conditions" and the team could bank on the "confidence and belief" they got from there as they gear up for the three-Test series this time.
"South Africa was really the start for us as a team, travelling and starting to belief we can win series overseas," he said. "We built it up nicely in England, and Australia was an accumulation of all those efforts.
"South Africa presents a different kind of challenge. The wickets have a lot of pace and bounce, and you have to be at your absolute best to perform there and get runs, get difficult runs. It's something we've tried to do as a team but probably left ourselves a bit too much to do at certain times, and when sessions have gone bad, they have gone very bad, which we have controlled well in the recent past with more experience and guys understanding conditions. So, I think we're well-placed in terms of experience, belief, and confidence that this time around we can do something special and get results we want as a team and overcome conditions to go and win a series.
"We can take a lot of motivation from that [Test win in 2018]; of course we probably won in the toughest conditions on that tour. So that should give us a lot of confidence that if we have the right mindset, and we start off the series with confidence and belief, we can stand up to any challenge that comes our way and take a lot of heart from it.
"South Africa is one place where we have not won a series yet, so we're motivated to do that, and the mindset is to go out there and win a series in any country that we play. We don't anymore think of just winning a Test match here and there, and we will do our absolute best that we can as a team to make sure we keep contributing towards that cause."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo