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Test of Character: Unbeaten India face formidable South Africa in battle for top spot

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Kolkata, Nov 4 (PTI) The top spot is at stake and an unconquered Indian team will certainly feel a sense of deja vu when it takes on a red-hot South Africa on Sunday in what will be a battle of equals in the World Cup.

It promises to be a fascinating contest and Virat Kohli and Ravichandran Ashwin can’t escape that “been there in this position” feeling since they were part of the World Cup squad that had a similar run in 2011.

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The only game that India had lost in the 2011 edition was against South Africa when an unheralded Robin Peterson had smashed Ashish Nehra for 19 runs after Indian batting imploded in Nagpur despite a hundred from Sachin Tendulkar.

Kohli, who is one short of record-equalling 49th ODI hundred, and Ashwin are the only players in the current squad who were part of India’s title-winning run.

On Sunday, Rohit Sharma’s players need to guard themselves from complacency and emulate the all-conquering Australian team of 2007 which won the World Cup without losing a single game.

A win and 16 points would confirm India’s top spot with a match left against the Netherlands.

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The die-hard Indian fans however won’t mind ‘Law of Averages’ catching up before the knock-out stage and not feel the heat when it matters most.

South Africa’s batting line-up, filled with power-hitters and game-changers will test India’s ‘pace galacticos’ before the semi-finals.

An unprecedented demand of tickets has added to the excitement to the Eden contest which in bigger picture will determine the group toppers heading into the semifinals.

Consistently racking up those humongous scores, it has been a challenge bowling to South Africa in this World Cup.

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They had notched the tournament’s biggest score of 428/5 batting first against Sri Lanka in their opening match.

In all of their five matches they have batted first South Africa have posted 300-plus totals with their chief enforcer being De Kock who leads the run-chart with 545 runs from seven matches.

Their only weakness has been chasing which was exposed by the minnows Netherlands who bundled them out for 207 inside 43 overs defending a modest 245.

The Proteas also made a mess of their 271-run chase against Pakistan before tailender Keshav Maharaj sealed an edgy one-wicket win.

India on the other hand have showed they can chase and defend well.

Chasing would be easy with dew around at the Eden but South Africa would be wary to bat second and would look to go all out up front.

“Eat. Sleep. Take five-wicket haul. Repeat” — reads a post from the ICC in praise of Indian pacer Mohammed Shami’s second five-for in three matches in this World Cup.

Call it a twist of fate but Shami has made the biggest difference to this Indian team following premier all-rounder Hardik Pandya’s ankle injury that ruled him out of the World Cup.

It forced a twin change with Suryakumar Yadav and Shami brought in place of Pandya and Shardul Thakur for the New Zealand match.

Since then, Shami has been on a roll taking 14 wickets in three matches at an average of 6.71.

Shami calls it ‘no rocket science’ but the way he has consistently hit Test match lengths and get those late movements, has made India’s three-pronged pace attack the most lethal, something that was evident when they skittled out Sri Lanka for 55 en route to securing a record 302-run win.

While Jasprit Bumrah has added a menacing slower yorker to his repertoire, Mohammed Siraj has given him a perfect support with the new ball.

They have taken 10 wickets — five each — in the powerplay as India have been most economical of the 10 teams in this crucial phase.

Half of the battle will be won if the duo manages to give early breakthroughs by sending back in-form De Kock and Rassie van der Dussen, who have six centuries between them in this World Cup.

Another interesting battle will be the battle between Heinrich Klaasen, who is known for taking on the spin attack, and Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja.

Having missed centuries against Australia (85), New Zealand (95), Sri Lanka (88), Kohli on his 35th birthday, would be eager to finally get that record-equalling 49th ODI hundred.

Rohit has a penchant to score daddy hundreds at his ‘favourite’ Eden Gardens and he too would be keen to be back among runs after getting out for 4 against Sri Lanka at his home ground.

Squads

India: Rohit Sharma (c), Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ishan Kishan (wk), Suryakumar Yadav and Prasidh Krishna.

South Africa: Temba Bavuma (c), Gerald Coetzee, Quinton de Kock (wk), Reeza Hendricks, Marco Jansen, Heinrich Klaasen (wk), Andile Phehlukwayo, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, David Miller, Lungi Ngidi, Kagiso Rabada, Tabraiz Shamsi, Rassie van der Dussen and Lizaad Williams.

Match starts: 2 pm IST.

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