After a near-perfect year, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team have their task cut out in the upcoming tour of South Africa in December. NDTV Cricket takes a look at the top Indians who are expected to make a mark in the two-Test, three-ODI series.
Shikhar Dhawan has been a revelation to say the least ever since his second coming in the Indian side as a Test opener against Australia in March, 2013. His swashbuckling 187 on debut at Mohali gave the hope that the country has another Virender Sehwag in the making.
To make sure his Test start wasn't an aberration, Dhawan went about making runs consistently in the limited-overs format. He heads to South Africa with a solid run of form, including six international hundreds in 2013, becoming the only player in the world to do so this year.
Having spent time with Dale Steyn in the Sunrisers Hyderabad outfit in the IPL, Dhawan would know a few tricks that the fiery pacer may have up his sleeve when he steams in to bowl to him.
Expected to do well in the shorter format in South Africa, Dhawan's real test of skill and temperament will be in the longer format when he will have to battle the Proteas' quickies on bouncy tracks over a sustained period of time.
Rohit Sharma's second innings in the Indian team has a lot to do with maturity and an increasing sense of responsibility. Earlier this year, Rohit was given the responsibility of opening the batting in ODIs against England. Since then there was no turning back for the Mumbaikar. Many pundits feel the responsibility of leading the Mumbai Indians during IPL 6 further matured Rohit as a cricketer.
He was getting fifties and laying a solid foundation for the middle order but the big hundred was not coming. And then came the ODI series against Australia at home that showed everyone that he is truly can be a world beater. His 209 at Bangalore against Australia contributed to a whopping 1159 runs in 25 ODIs this year at an average of 55 with two hundreds and eight fifties, coupled with back-to-back hundreds in his first two Tests.
In the five ODIs he played in South Africa in 2011, he was going through a bad patch and averaged a mere 9.8, scoring just 48 runs in 5 innings with a best of 23. That was the Rohit of old. The new Rohit means business and is ready to bat for long and punish the bowlers. South Africans, beware!
The Virat Kohli run-juggernaut refuses to stop. Arguably one of the best limited-overs batsmen at the moment, his work ethic, dedication, focus and result-oriented attitude has been his forte in the last couple of years.
The highest ODI run-getter of 2013 is a massive threat to the South Africans. Kohli hasn't really showed any weaknesses with the bat as he has worked over-time to improve his game.
Kohli is one of the few Indian batsmen in the recent past who boast an impressive track record in ODIs in South Africa. Out of 8 matches he has played in the Rainbow Nation, Kohli has aggregated 288 runs at an average of 57 with three fifties. These are much more than what other senior players like MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh have come up with.
When Cheteshwar Pujara toured South Africa in 2010 in his first and only series away from home till date, it was a baptism of fire. A blue-eyed boy of Indian cricket then failed to get noticed as he suffered at the hands of a fiery Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. Three full years later, Pujara comes into the Test series in South Africa as the most consistent batsman in the Indian Test top-6.
Much has changed in these three years. Pujara has fought a career-threatening knee injury, which forced him out of the humiliating away series debacles in England and Australia. He has seen the one-day team lift the World Cup and has showed enough class in his Test abilities to be compared with the 'Wall' of Indian cricket - Rahul Dravid.
While most Indian batsmen are known for their stroke-play and free-flowing style of batting, Pujara brings solidity in the Test line-up. His dogged approach to each innings and the appetite to bat for long hours and score big runs defines him.
He now has a chance to answer his critics who feel that Pujara is yet to do justice to the crucial No.3 spot by replicating a Dravid-like dependability in challenging overseas conditions.
Zaheer Khan, who returns to the team after a year-long gap, will spearhead the Indian pace attack in South Africa. In a team full of youngsters, Zaheer will be one of the few chips of the 'old block'.
The 35-year-old pacer has worked hard on his fitness, managed weight issues and returned to the side leaner and fitter. With hard fitness drills in France and then South Africa in the summer, Zaheer took no short cuts and played Ranji Trophy games for Mumbai this season to get back to match fitness.
Zaheer has had fond memories in South Africa as his previous comeback to the team was also on a tour to the Rainbow nation. In the past, Zaheer has had an upper hand against South African skipper Graeme Smith. The latter continues to have problems against left-arm pacers as the recent ODI series against Pakistan showed. Zaheer would aim to continue exploiting that area.
In six Tests in South Africa, Zaheer has taken a total of 23 wickets with a best of 4/62.