South Africa in India 2007-08 March 24, 2008

Fascinating contest for a filler

Can the 'Phalaborwa Express' instill fear in the minds of the famed Indian batting line-up? © AFP

It's a series that could easily be brushed off as a filler. India v Australia was a titanic struggle, one where the dust simply refused to settle; coming up is the Indian Premier League, a glittering extravaganza like none other. In between is India v South Africa. You could bill it as the battle for No. 2; you could also hope that it gets out of the way quickly.

It's been a largely lukewarm build-up. India have been basking in the afterglow of the CB Series triumph; South Africa are dusting their palms after pounding Bangladesh. India are busy debating the merits of youth versus experience; South Africa are fretting over the quota system. Walk in and around the Chidambaram Stadium and you're likely to see 'Chennai Super Kings' [the name of the city's IPL team] emblazoned on the walls. Banners advertising India v South Africa are more like an afterthought.

Yet this is a series with plenty of sub-plots. It will be Gary Kirsten's first assignment as India's coach and it comes against his beloved South Africa. As a player, he adapted to the slow Indian tracks and managed 471 runs in five Tests at an average of 52.33. He would know the South African approach and beating them up front would be a grand way to start.

South Africa aren't worried so much about him as they are about his assistant. Paddy Upton, India's new mental conditioning coach, has worked with most of the current South Africa players, including Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis. Mickey Arthur, South Africa's coach, is worried about Upton respecting the confidentiality of his relationship with his players. He's pointed it out not once, but twice. Upton, for his part, said he won't reveal secrets. Anyone for an Hippocratic Oath?

It's been a series billed, in South Africa at least, as 'Steyn v the Fab Four'. Dale Steyn, known as the 'Phalaborwa Express', arrives with a reputation. He's troubled Pakistan, destroyed New Zealand, skewered West Indies and torn apart Bangladesh. He's shone in the dry pitches of the subcontinent and done equally well back home. Some say he's the complete package but his biggest challenge here will be to overcome a solid batting order.

Anyone who saw Virender Sehwag's match-saving hundred in Adelaide will term the series 'Steyn v the Fab Five'. He leads an order which has claims to being one of the most formidable in history. Rahul Dravid hasn't been in the best of touch and Sourav Ganguly didn't fire in Australia but don't write off either. There's no point writing off VVS Laxman, especially with the kind of form he's shown recently, and absolutely foolish to disregard Sachin Tendulkar. And just in case we forget the cautionary farewell note: it's probably the last time this line-up takes on South Africa.

Steyn won't be alone in trying to get at them. Alongside him will be Morné Morkel, tall, fast, and full of heart. Backing them up is Makhaya Ntini, a thoroughbred who never tires, and Monde Zondeki, coming off an outstanding domestic season where he snapped up 52 first-class wickets.

India will remember Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner who thwarted them in Cape Town in early 2007. There's also the option of Robin Peterson, a potential banana skin for India to slip. South Africa will know that India don't enjoy extreme pace, they will also know they don't always relish quality left-arm spin.

For me Harbhajan Singh is the man who could be the stand out in the TestsGary Kirsten, India's coach, picks his trump

Kallis and Smith feel the attack is good enough to get 20 wickets. Kirsten thinks the same about India. There's no Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma but RP Singh, who came of age on the Australian tour, and Sreesanth, who had knocked over South Africa at the Wanderers, aren't freshers.

Anil Kumble has been there and done that but Kirsten seems to have a trump in mind. "For me Harbhajan Singh is the man who could be the stand out in the Tests," he told a South African daily. "The pitches we are going to play on will favour the fast bowlers and will be good for stroke-making as well. But the spinners will have a major role to play later in the game."

South Africa will have plenty on their plate. Apart from the opposition, they'll have to handle heat, humidity and noise. They will need to play time and win the battle of attrition. They will need to realise that beating India requires graft rather than shock. If they pull it off it could be their sweetest win in the subcontinent. The only problem is few may take note: everyone may be too gripped by the IPL by then.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo