India's Cheteshwar Pujara, right listens to head coach Ravi Shastri
India's Cheteshwar Pujara, right listens to head coach Ravi Shastri after batting in the nets during a training session in Visakhapatnam, on Tuesday. Image Credit: AP

Visakhapatnam: India are set to select Wriddhiman Saha to replace Rishabh Pant for the first Test of a three-match series against South Africa starting in Visakhapatnam on Wednesday, with skipper Virat Kohli describing Saha as the best wicketkeeper in the world.

The 34-year-old Saha played the last of his 32 Tests against South Africa in Cape Town in January last year but had struggled to find a way back into the squad with shoulder and hamstring injuries hampering his progress.

Pant, 21, stepped in to fill the gap and has scored centuries in England and Australia. But Kohli suggested the experienced Saha would don the gloves this time, partly in view of the spin-friendly wickets in India.

“Yes, Saha is fit and fine to go, and he’s going to start for us this series, and his keeping credentials are there for everyone to see,” Kohli told a news conference on Tuesday.

“He’s the best wicketkeeper in the world, so in these conditions, with what he’s done in the past, he starts for us.

“He’s played well whenever he’s got a chance, with the bat also, and it was unfortunate that he was out for such a long period.”

Kohli said India had stuck with Pant in the recent two-Test series in the West Indies to ensure Saha was not rushed back into action.

“We felt Rishabh, given the opportunities, had done well and although Saha was almost going to start [in the West Indies], we felt it was better to just let him ease back into things rather than forcing him into starting immediately,” Kohli said.

“Saha was always going to be someone that we would back as a pure keeper in Test cricket, and he’s done well under pressure situations also in the past.”

Kohli has a chance of joining batting legends Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid in the three-Test series. Till date, only Tendulkar, Dravid and Sehwag have scored 1000 or more runs against South Africa in Tests, and Kohli needs 242 runs to join them.

Kohli currently has 758 runs against the Proteas in nine Tests. Batting legend Tendulkar is top of the list with 1,741 runs in 25 Tests, Sehwag has 1,306 runs in 15 Tests while Dravid has 1,252 runs in 21 Tests.

Rohit Sharma to open

Meanwhile, limited-overs specialist Rohit Sharma will be a surprising opener for India in the first Test against a rebuilding South Africans.

Kohli said Sharma, who averages 39.62 in 27 Tests since 2013, will open for the short term with Lokesh Rahul sent back to domestic cricket to regain form.

Sharma has never been able to extend his ODI form, where he averages 48.5 in 218 matches with 27 centuries, to the longer format.

He has never opened even in domestic first-class cricket apart from his two-ball duck in a practice game against South Africa last week.

“We are in no hurry with Rohit as opener,” Kohli said on Tuesday. “It is all about a mental change and the whole team is excited to see if he can replicate his ODI form. He will be given the space to find his own game and come into his own.”

No. 1-ranked India will be without paceman Jasprit Bumrah, who has been ruled out of the three-Test series with a minor back stress fracture. India will revert to a two-spinner, two-pacer formula in home conditions.

Ashwin returns to action

Ravichandran Ashwin will return to the side after not playing in the West Indies as India team management favoured Ravindra Jadeja. Ashwin last played Test cricket against Australia at Adelaide in December 2018, ending a lengthy absence for the off-spinner, who has taken 234 wickets in 38 home Tests.

South Africa will take the field in Test for the first time since the retirements of mainstays Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn, and skipper Faf du Plessis has already said he will retire after the Twenty20 World Cup next year.

Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada are expected to lead the new-ball attack for South Africa. Aiden Markram, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn and Zubayr Hamsa are expected to give South Africa batting the boost, with none of those batsmen featuring in the 2015 four-Test series in India, which the hosts won 3-0.

“We are a different unit,” du Plessis said. “It is a very young batting line-up and they are motivated to do well in international cricket, and this tour will be no different for them.”

The second Test begins on October 10 in Pune and the third on October 19 in Ranchi.