India Eye Unassailable 3-0 Lead in Third ODI Against South Africa
India will have their sights set on an unprecedented 3-0 lead when they take on a South African team, which has quite literally fallen apart due to injury blows, in the third ODI of the six-match series in Cape Town on Wednesday.
The visitors won the first two matches of the series in Durban and Centurion by six and nine wickets, respectively, dismantling the home side with consummate ease.
Twice previously, India have managed to win two ODIs in a bilateral series in South Africa in 1992-93 and in 2010-11.
In the latter instance, the visitors shot into a 2-1 lead, only to lose the five-match series 3-2 in the end. They had also lost 5-2 in the other instance.
But given the hosts' current travails, history repeating itself would be a major disaster for the Men in Blue.
This is because the Proteas are beset with injury problems. AB de Villiers was ruled out before the first ODI, Faf du Plessis before the second (both suffered finger injuries).
And the list has only grown with Quinton de Kock (left wrist injury) ruled out before the third ODI.
Cricket South Africa didn't name a replacement for him, and Heinrich Klaasen, who finished as the third highest run-getter in the domestic one-day tournament, is expected to make his ODI debut.
In a way, this could be a blessing in disguise for the hosts. De Kock has been out of form for a while now, failing to cross 50 even once in eight innings against India across both Tests and ODIs.
Klaasen's late inclusion will mean that he is yet to be scarred by Indian wrist-spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, who have shared 13 wickets in the first two matches.
South Africa will be hoping for a better and fast-paced start from the in-form batsman, if he is asked to open along with Hashim Amla.
De Kock and Amla put on 30 and 39 for the opening stand in Durban and Centurion, after which the remaining batting line-up – barring du Plessis' hundred – wilted against leg spin.
A school of thought says young skipper Aiden Markram will give himself a second promotion in two matches. He had batted at Number 4 in Durban (scoring 9 off 21 balls) and at Number 3 in Centurion (scoring 8 of 11 balls).
The Proteas could also include more experienced Ferhaan Behardien to bolster the middle-order and leave out Khayelihle Zondo after his mixed debut outing on Sunday.
Zondo scored only 25 runs off 45 balls, and played far too many risky strokes, but in an innings that folded for 118 runs in 32.2 overs, he was the joint top-scorer with JP Duminy.
The other option for the hosts is to leave out David Miller, who has struggled against Yadav, accommodating both Behardien and Zondo instead.
South Africa will be keen to mix things up in the hope of countering the wrist-spin threat, and make an impression with the bat in the hurting absence of De Villiers and Du Plessis.
Also, Centurion saw another departure from norm for the Proteas. Despite defeat in Durban, Du Plessis was adamant that "two spinners didn't fit into their team balance".
Yet, Markram – in his first outing as skipper – belied those words and picked both Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi at Centurion.
With Du Plessis still part of the dressing room despite his injury, this was more of a change in keeping with the pitch conditions on Sunday than anything else.
As such, it remains to be seen what sort of wicket is presented to both teams on Wednesday, and whether South Africa will persist with this tactic.
Meanwhile, the Indian team is relishing a fine role reversal from the Test series. While South Africa shot into a 2-0 lead, the visitors had to chop and change repeatedly to find a plausible combination throughout the prior series.
In the present, there is once again no need to change things around. Virat Kohli, who has named 35 different playing elevens in 35 Tests, could very well field the same team for this third successive ODI.
Consistency will give them a boost in what is surely a match of historic significance, albeit a small one, as India have never before won three matches in an ODI bilateral series on the South African soil.
If it so comes about, this will also be India's third-ever win at Newlands, for the Men in Blue have only played four ODIs at this ground, winning two and losing two, since 1992.
Additionally, India had climbed to the top spot in ICC ODI rankings after their win in Centurion and another win in Cape Town will help them open up a gap in the standings.
A win for South Africa will see India move back to the Number 2 spot.
The Indian team management has repeatedly said that rankings don't warrant much attention, but these are brownie points that Kohli and company wouldn't want to miss out on.
(Statistics by Arun Gopalakrishnan)