Dravid disappointed at missing out
Rahul Dravid will watch from the sidelines as the Indians take on Rest of South Africa in a four-day game at Potchefstroom that starts on Thursday, and he'll have plenty to assess from beyond the boundary as his team bids to inject some life into a tour that has been an utter nightmare so far. Speaking to the media ahead of the game, Dravid made no attempt to play down the importance of the game, and expressed his disappointment at having to miss out.
"It's good that it's a four-day game," he said. "Hopefully, there'll be two chances for us to bat, and the guys will get some time in the middle. The bowlers will also need to show intensity during long spells, and get into Test-match mode.
"I can't fault the effort. As a group, we just haven't played the bounce well. It has a lot to do with the fact that we've come here with guys who are out of form. That has accentuated the struggle."
Despite the heavy defeats in the one-day games - three drubbings by more than 80 runs, and one nine-wicket defeat - Dravid insisted that the tour was far from a lost cause. "We've got to remain positive," he said. "We hope this game will be the start of that. We know we can play much better cricket than we showed in the ODIs. We won our last Test series in the West Indies, and we'll take some confidence from that. If the experienced players get runs, we can put pressure on them and take 20 wickets."
Along with Dravid, Anil Kumble, Dinesh Karthik and Munaf Patel are rested for the game, and the team management will choose between Gautam Gambhir and Irfan Pathan on the morning of the game. Sachin Tendulkar has recovered fairly well after Andre Nel caused bruising in a forearm bone during the last ODI at Centurion, but there's understandable concern at Munaf's failure to recover in time from his ankle troubles.
"It wasn't progressing as well as it should," said Dravid, when asked about Munaf. "The surgeon in Cape Town had suggested that he might be ready to play this game, but now we've sent him to Johannesburg for another check-up. Anil [Kumble] has gone with him since he's been here before for treatment. Hopefully, he'll be ready for the first Test. There's a whole week to go."
There were no worries about his own broken finger. "I've been knocking around a little in the nets," he said, "and I'm hopeful that I'll play the first Test. Fielding in the slips will be a challenge, but Sachin's been catching beautifully there, and [VVS] Laxman will take his usual place at second slip. I'll start batting in the nets in a couple of days."
According to Dravid, the final composition of the XI for the tour game would be decided by the captain for the game, Laxman. "Wasim Jaffer and [Virender] Sehwag will open," he said, when pressed about the opening positions. And when asked where that left Gambhir, Dravid said: "If we play the extra batsman, he may play at No.3, unless Laxman wants to bat there. We'll take a look tomorrow morning and then decide."
Dravid didn't read too much into Sehwag being replaced as vice-captain, but talked of how he and Laxman would gel well together. "He has a good head on his shoulders," he said. "We go back a long way. We can be frank with each other, and he won't be shy of telling me what to do."
Though the debate continues to rage on the subject, Dravid flat-batted away a question on the need for a bowling coach or consultant. "The batsmen we have here have played in these conditions before. We know what lengths and lines to bowl. We're clear about that. Zaheer [Khan] has been here before, and we'll tap into his experience. Anil has bowled all around the world, and we'll make use of his knowledge too."
India last sent an Under-19 or A team to these parts nearly five years ago, and Dravid admitted that other international sides had stolen a march over India in that regard. "Even if they don't send A teams, most countries send players to MRF [Pace Foundation, Chennai] or to the CCI-run World Cricket Academy. Alastair Cook is a good example of a guy who had played in India before coming out for the last Test tour. They've got acclimatised to the conditions in the subcontinent, and there's a case for looking into such tours for young players. You can work up tie-ups with teams. Even a Ranji Trophy side could work out a reciprocal arrangement with local associations elsewhere."
As expected, he was asked a question about Sourav Ganguly's return to the fold. "We hope he'll make runs for us," said Dravid. "He has the experience of these conditions to play match-winning innings for us."
It will take more than one man though to halt India's slide on this tour.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo