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This is a contest cricket has longed for. India and South Africa, two nations with inspiring histories of freedom struggle — sometimes entwined together — happen to be among cricket’s most loved sides. Both sides are laden with superstars. On paper India’s batting holds the edge and despite their newfound strength in pace battery, South Africa’s bowling unit is more suited for home conditions.

India have never won a Test series in South Africa. In fact, all they have managed from six tours are 2 Test wins. South Africa, on the other hand, were whipped 0-3 in India in the 2015-16 season on rank turners, and have a “score to settle”. I am aware of the camaraderie and not overhyping a scenario with words. To quote Faf du Plessis on the eve of the tour opener, “I don’t know when the next Test series against India is, but it’s probably the last time all of us [seniors] play against India and there’s no better way than playing a series in South Africa. We were disappointed the last time we went there and we’ve got a score to settle, so we’re excited for this series.”

The armouries are set. The soldiers ready. Expect no amity when these off-field friends clash at Cape Town for the first Test of the Freedom Series. Here are the battles within the battle that may determine the outcome.

Virat Kohli vs AB de Villiers

Who is the best batsman across formats? Isn’t Kohli the obvious answer? Wait. Here is what Kohli says, “AB is the best batsman in the world.”

De Villiers is back playing Tests. If Kohli is about consistency, AB’s skill-set are from a different echelon. While Kohli is more about consistency, AB’s impact has crushed best of attacks. As I write this, both these players have been retained by Royal Challengers Bangalore for IPL 2018. Their camaraderie will hold no place in this contest.

Either of them scoring big will swing the momentum to their respective side.

Ravichandran Ashwin vs Dean Elgar

Ashwin has bowled to Elgar 7 times and got him out in 4 of them. Elgar was one of the top performers of 2017. Almost his Test runs During South Africa’s 2015-16 tour of India, Elgar had batted better than most of his teammates. He oversaw the pace threat before falling to Ashwin with alarming frequency. It was not that he was not trying but Ashwin had enough tricks under his sleeves, on helpful tracks, to laugh his way to glory.

These are different conditions. Can Elgar triumph over Ashwin in home conditions? Ashwin has practised enough with the Kookaburra ball. The outcome will be seen soon.

Cheteshwar Pujara vs Keshav Maharaj

Pujara has conquered every opponent in the past year-and-a-half. From New Zealand to England to Australia to Sri Lanka, all have been mastered by Pujara. He finished second to Steven Smith in the top run-getters’ charts for 2017. But, all of that was at home. Pujara only enhanced his reputation of being a home bully. His numbers outside the subcontinent cut a sorry picture though they have been good in South Africa. Pujara will eye boosting his reputation as an overall batsman.

India have been felled by quality spin from time to time. Maharaj has been among the best of bowlers in recent times. At the other end, Pujara has conquered spin with his nimble footwork. This battle is bound to provide plenty of grab-the-popcorn moments.

Rohit Sharma vs Morne Morkel

Sourav Ganguly had recently stated that batting at Nos. 5 and 6 in the Indian line-up is more challenging than at Nos. 3 or 4. Ask Rohit, and he will nod in agreement. Spending hours padded up, being prepared for 20 for 3 and 300 for 3, be equipped for the reversing old ball or the second new ball in the wee hours. Adaptation is the word.

Rohit likes the ball coming onto the bat. Morkel will just do that but with extra pace and bounce, just too much for any batsmen’s liking. Morkel has been in top form, sinking batsmen at will. Ajinkya Rahane’s lack of form is likely to catapult Rohit into the team, but there is no doubt that Rohit has been in excellent form across formats.

Mohammed Shami vs Hashim Amla

Remember this?

This was Shami’s second Test series and his first overseas. He returns to South Africa as a more potent threat, this time as the leader of the Indian bowling pack. Meanwhile, the last time Amla played India, he produced a supreme blockathon.

Amla can be shaky at start and there lies Shami’s chance. Shami’s strength lies in a terrific seam position. He will look to breach Amla’s defence, but Amla can make any side pay big if he gets his eye in. India have suffered from that before.