India’s last tour, under the leadership of Kohli, to South Africa was in 2017-18. Kohli’s men managed to win the opening Test in Johannesburg by 63 runs but went on to lose the remaining two Tests and the three-match series 2-1. This will be Kohli’s second tour as captain to South Africa and Zaheer feels this current team is capable of creating history this time around.
India will kick off their Test campaign in the Rainbow Nation on December 26, with the Boxing Day Test, at the SuperSport Park in Centurion.
The teams will play the second Test from January 3 at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg and the third and final Test from January 11 at the Newlands in Cape Town. The three-match Test series will be followed by three ODI series – January 19 (Boland Park, Paarl), January 21 (Boland Park, Paarl), and January 23 (Newlands, Cape Town). This is India’s eighth tour to South Africa.
Overall, India and South Africa have locked horns in 20 Tests in South Africa. India have emerged victorious on only 3 occasions and South Africa have won 10 Tests. 7 Tests ended in draws.
TimesofIndia.com caught up with pace veteran Zaheer, who is also Mumbai Indians’ Director of Cricket Operations, to talk about the upcoming India vs South Africa series, Ajinkya Rahane‘s patchy form, Rohit Sharma‘s absence in the Tests due to injury, India’s opening conundrum, and much more.
India are set to face South Africa in a three-match Test series. India are chasing their maiden Test series win in South Africa. What’s your prediction?
We have had quite a few wins in South Africa. The victories in Wanderers, the victory in Durban. I remember those wins fondly. We also came very close to winning a series in South Africa but we couldn’t. For this Indian team, there is a big opportunity right now to win a series in South Africa. The kind of consistency this Test team has shown, there is no reason to think otherwise. Team India has got a great chance of winning a series in South Africa. I am sure they will put up a great show.
How difficult will it be for captain Virat Kohli and his men to beat South Africa in their own land in Tests though? They haven’t traditionally done well in South Africa…
It all boils down to the planning and the consistent cricket this team has been playing. They have to just keep things simple. They need to continue what they have been doing. They have been successful in various conditions and the best part is that the bowling unit has been consistently doing well. India will definitely relish the South African conditions and the bowlers will enjoy bowling in those conditions. As a batting unit you need to put up a lot of runs on the board which is a basic requirement, but to win a Test match you need to take 20 wickets. The way Indian bowlers have been bowling, they will be able to do that. I am sure this Indian team will win their maiden series in South Africa.
In terms of batting, how much will India miss their star opener, Rohit Sharma, in the Test series? Who should open the batting for India?
Rohit Sharma (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
The quality of Rohit Sharma you are always going to miss. There is no doubt about it. But if you look at the squad, there are a number of good options to open for India. You need to wait and see which direction the team goes in. There are consistent performers in the team and the bench strength is also looking very good. It is a good headache to have for the team management.
Ajinkya Rahane hasn’t been in great form. Do you think he can get his mojo back in the Test series vs SA? Are Rahane’s best batting years behind him now?
There have been mixed performances for Ajinkya Rahane. There is no doubt about it. He is under immense pressure. That is the fact. For any cricketer, to go through this kind of phase, you’ve got to have that mental toughness to come out of it. The good part is that you are still there and you are one inning away. As a batsman or cricketer, you should have such a belief. Through my personal experience, if someone is going through a rough patch, you’ve got to have that belief that you are just one inning or one good knock away from that good performance. If you hit that, things change very fast as well. This is what I would advise Ajinkya at this stage. As a cricketer, you need to accept these challenges and take them head-on.
Would you say this Test series is in many ways the last chance for the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Rahane to come good. If they don’t, will we see them being dropped from the Test squad going ahead?
Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara (AFP Photo)
I don’t believe in all these things. I will just talk from a cricketer’s point of view. These factors are not in your control. What is in your control is when you are playing the match. You just have to make that impact with your performance. That’s what the challenges of playing at the highest level bring to you. It’s a routine process. You just need to go and shut out the noise with your performances and just bring the best out of you. These things are the background noise.
What playing XI would you suggest for the opening Test in SuperSport Park, Centurion? India have included 6 pacers in their squad. Who should be in Virat’s first-choice pace combination for the opening Test and who would you play at No. 5 – Rahane, Iyer or Hanuma?
These are decisions best left to the team management. They are there to make the right decisions and put up a winning playing XI on the field. You have such a good squad. It has to be with a plan. I would emphasise on a very clear plan and tactical decisions according to the conditions you will be playing in. You need to be good with your understanding, decisions, and what tactically will work for you to win a Test match. India should take it one Test at a time.
Image credit: BCCI
Tell us about your association with StepSetGo? What is it about?
StepSetGo as an entity was founded in 2019. I was involved in the conceptualisation of StepSetGo. I feel very proud. The journey has been amazing. I like this concept because of its simplicity. I have been part of many fitness programs, ventures, and initiatives. You start with walking and inspire those people to take up fitness and tell them how easily they can achieve their goals and stay healthy. This initiative runs in the background and monitors your step. You can keep checking how you are doing.
What are the things a cricketer or an athlete from any sport should do to keep himself or herself fit post-retirement?
It’s not only for cricketers, but it is also for everyone that it is very important to stay healthy and fit. You do small things. The importance of fitness is not training hardcore. This is something I have learned in my life and experience as well. It is all about consistently doing small things and staying on that path. I will just advise people to stay consistent and target small goals. That’s what I liked about the concept of StepSetGo because it will ask you to do a little better than what you did yesterday. Give yourself small targets and achieve those. Fitness is not a burden, it’s fun.