ICC Champions Trophy 2017: 'Toughest battle' for Virat Kohli as India face South Africa in a must-win encounter
All eyes will be on captain Virat Kohli when Team India takes on world number one South Africa in a 'must-win' encounter of the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 at The Oval on Sunday. This will unarguably be the toughest battle of Kohli's nascent ODI captaincy career which started early this year after MS Dhoni stepped aside keeping the future in mind. Defending Champions India started their campaign with a mega win over arch-rivals Pakistan in their first group fixture. But, the men in blue were thumped by a resurgent Sri Lankan side who chased a record total of 322 to beat India comprehensively by seven wickets. Now, Kohli will have to lead from the front and come up with new game plan if they want to win over a strong Proteas team.
Call it irony, if India lose the game, they will be in for an exit even before the semi-final. If the Proteas lose, then the current No.1 ranked ODI side would be ousted before the last four stage.
A defeat will have the skeptics blaming the speculated off-the-field issues for the performance. In such a backdrop, Kohli will be under huge pressure with no margin of error.
For AB de Villiers, it will be an opportunity to prove that self-imposed exile from the five-day game has not affected his limited-overs skills.
With three quality left-handers -- Quinton de Kock, JP Duminy, and David Miller -- in the South African line-up, Kohli can't afford to keep Ravichandran Ashwin in cold storage.
More so after knowing what can happen to Ravindra Jadeja when there is absolutely nothing in the strip.
Ashwin at least has some natural variations, including the off-break which is his stock ball. The proud performer that he is, Ashwin will be smarting after being excluded in the first two games and it can only work positively in India's favor.
However, skipper Kohli's leadership acumen and understanding of the current situation will be under scrutiny depending upon the kind of playing XI he opts for the next game.
Ashwin's entry into the playing XI looks logical but he certainly won't replace Jadeja as two spinners are likely to play against the Proteas, who are not known to be comfortable against slow bowlers.
The other big factor is Jadeja's electric fielding inside the circle and the powerful arm from anywhere at the boundary line. Jadeja can save at least 15 runs per match which makes him a useful player in this format.
Neither can Hardik Pandya be dropped as his pyrotechnics at No 7 is just what is needed from a batsman used as a floater in the order.
Jasprit Bumrah is another specialist bowler, who is a certainty in the playing XI, with his ability to bowl Yorkers at will at the death.
Therefore it will either be Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Umesh Yadav, who may have to make way for Ashwin.
In the second Powerplay overs during the Sri Lanka match, India had conceded over 200 runs, something Ashwin will be asked to check as a marauding AB de Villiers will be itching to score big.
With scores of 319 and 321 in the two games, India's batting has a settled look. All the top-order batsmen have got a decent hit including the opening duo of Rohit-Sharma-Shikhar Dhawan, who conjured back-to-back century partnerships.
While both openers have been in good nick, there's no denying that they have also consumed a lot of balls initially, which finally had an impact during the Lanka game.
With new Powerplay rules, any total of less than 340 can be knocked off with some positive intent in strokeplay.
Kohli is happy with the batting performance but on a practical note, feels that they may need 20 runs of cushion.
"Maybe you think of phases where we could have accelerated (vs SL), but I don't see that as a major issue. Maybe we will have to push harder now in the next few games to give us a 20-run cushion after seeing a result like this because we're playing on the same ground as well," the skipper had said.
In fact, South Africa batting coach Neil McKenzie also agreed that fluency has been an issue for openers of all the teams.
"It's been a little bit of tough going for the openers. The fluency has been an issue. But one needs to adapt according to situations as the conditions here demand a little bit of caution. The wickets need to be kept so that one can attack in the back end," McKenzie said.
On the personal front, Kohli himself would like to lead with the bat against a side that has bowlers like Morne Morkel and all-rounder Chris Morris.
Imran Tahir, whose stock ball is googly, might just test Rohit's defense as the Mumbaikar had some trouble reading the wrong 'un from him during IPL.
With an interesting main plot and layers of sub-plot, one can brace up for some exhilarating action between two quality sides.
India: Virat Kohli (captain), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Kedar Jadhav, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Dinesh Karthik, Ajinkya Rahane.
South Africa: AB de Villiers (captain), Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock (wk), David Miller, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Imran Tahir, Keshav Maharaj, Farhan Behardien, Chris Morris, Wayne Parnell, Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwayne Pretorius, Kagiso Rabada.
(With PTI Inputs)