The national selectors will meet in Vadodara on Monday to pick the squads for the tour of South Africa. India will play three ODIs and two Tests from December 5-30. The ODIs will be played before the Tests, but both squads are expected to be picked at the same meeting.
This will be India's first foreign tour to play Test matches after two years, the previous being the trip to Australia in 2011-12 when India lost the four-Test series 4-0. The previous tour of South Africa was better, as they secured a 1-1 draw in three Tests. That was the only time India avoided defeat in a Test series in Rainbow Country.
While most slots in the 16-man squad will be occupied by those who did duty in recent times, it is to be seen what happens to Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan. Both were dropped after the home series against England last year and have done reasonably well in domestic matches this season.
With Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay being looked at as first-choice openers, Gambhir's only chance is to sneak in as reserve opener. Ajinkya Rahane was selected in that role for the Australia trip two years ago, although he is set to make it as a middle-order batsman this time.
Gambhir's case will be stronger if the selectors go for a specialist reserve opener, but he will be ignored if the panel headed by Sandeep Patil opts for someone like Dinesh Karthik. The Tamil Nadu captain has opened for India in the past and can double up as reserve wicketkeeper, which gives the team management more flexibility in choosing players according to the need of the hour.
Going by current form, however, Gambhir is way ahead, having scored 372 runs in three Ranji Trophy matches with a century and two half-centuries. Karthik has managed just 85 runs in three matches without a fifty. Zaheer's situation is different. Along with form, his fitness will also be evaluated. The veteran left-armer has taken 13 wickets in three Ranji games this season and people who have seen him, said he is in good shape. But he will face competition as the selectors will pick five medium pacers with Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav being certainties. The remaining two will be picked from Ishant Sharma, Mohit Sharma, Jaydev Unadkat and Zaheer. It's possible that the team management will asked to take a call on Zaheer.
It won't be a surprise to see Pragyan Ojha missing the bus, although he took 10 wickets and was named Man of the Match in the last Test India played – against the West Indies in Mumbai. If he is not taken, the argument will be India don't need a left-arm spinner in South Africa. If needed, that job can be done by Ravindra Jadeja.
The certainties: Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Shikhar Dhawan. Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav. Four from: Gautam Gambhir, Dinesh Karthik, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha, Monish Sharma, Zaheer Khan, Jaydev Unadkat, Wriddhiman Saha.