India looks past omicron, sees chance of history in SAfrica
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — For all its glorious history, India has never won a test series in South Africa and the chance to change that will be the focus for Virat Kohli’s top-ranked team on a monthlong tour spent in another coronavirus bio-bubble, this time amid the threat of the new omicron variant.
Despite omicron, the three-test series goes ahead, starting on Sunday in Centurion, but with a tightening of virus protocols after South Africa first identified and announced to the world the existence of the highly contagious variant last month.
Both teams will live in stricter bio-secure environments than originally planned, especially for the first two tests in the Gauteng province, the center of the world’s first surge in virus cases driven by omicron. The tour, with the first test initially due to start Dec. 17, was also pushed back, perhaps to give India the chance to see how South Africa’s omicron surge plays out. The news is there’s been a noticeable drop in cases in recent days.
Still, no fans will be allowed at any of the tests in Centurion, Johannesburg and Cape Town, or any of the three one-day internationals that will follow, in a change caused by omicron. South Africa was preparing to allow a limited number of supporters into games before omicron emerged and foiled those plans.
But India’s cricketers, who have won in Australia and England over the last year to cement their status as the No. 1 test team in the world, are as familiar as any international sportsmen and women with the now not-so-new reality of playing in a pandemic. They will be quarantined in their hotels for the month, leaving only for matches and training sessions.
“Sometimes I feel (a) bio-bubble helps the team environment where you end up spending more time with the team players, you are in the team room, you are having more team dinners together,” India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara said. “So, overall I feel sometimes it helps the team environment.
“Yes, there are some challenges as well,” he added. “You are not allowed to go out, you cannot explore the country. But at the same time you are getting to play some cricket and that’s the most important thing being a cricketer.”
When it comes to the cricket, India’s chances of finally cracking South Africa on its eighth test tour to the country are improved by a world-class and deep fast-bowling lineup led by Jasprit Bumrah, and with Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Siraj, Mohammed Shami, Shardul Thakur and Umesh Yadav all ready to support.
India has often fallen short on South Africa’s pacey, seaming pitches because its quick bowlers were second best. That may not be the case this time.
“Our fast bowlers have been the difference between the two sides whenever we have played abroad,” Pujara said. “We have done exceptionally well as a bowling unit and I am sure that will be the case even in South Africa.”
Rohit Sharma’s absence for the series because of a hamstring injury still leaves a formidable batting lineup led by the superb Kohli, who has given up the limited-overs captaincy and can concentrate solely on securing that test victory in South Africa.
South Africa has slipped to No. 6 in the test rankings amid years of trouble behind the scenes at the national cricket body, where numerous leaders have been fired for misconduct and a temporary committee was brought in to run the sport. Now, head coach Mark Boucher and director of cricket Graeme Smith are to be investigated next year over allegations they discriminated against Black colleagues.
South Africa captain Dean Elgar said the current team has learned to pull together through the turmoil.
“We, as a playing group, have been through such a crappy time that we’ve formed such a tight bond within our group over the past year or so,” Elgar said. “For me it’s not an excuse to use. If we were in the first month of all these bad scenarios, then I might understand it. But we’ve been here before and I’d like to believe we’ve formulated something to deal with this.”
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