The battle for No. 1 begins
Match factsFebruary 6-10, 2010
Start time 0930 (0400 GMT)
Calling this series the World Championship of Cricket, as the host broadcaster is, will be an exaggeration, but it does start a cycle of about two years by the end of which we could spot the undisputed best Test team. Both teams have reason to believe they can occupy the spot vacated by Australia. Both say it's not the rankings, but consistent good cricket against tough opposition at home and away, that will make them the best team. Over the next two years, they will get ample opportunity to do that against each other, and they will hate to let Australia sneak in again. To achieve their ends, though, India and South Africa have to overcome the immediate challenges posed by a slew of personnel changes. The hosts are without two key batsmen - Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh - and the visitors have a new coach and selection panel.
India are new to the concept of dominating in Test cricket. The current winning streak of four matches - two each against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - is their joint-longest in more than 77 years of Test cricket. They last won four in a row when they blanked hapless England 3-0 in 1992-93, followed by a one-off win against Zimbabwe. But one thing that this particular unit can't be accused of is carrying demons from, or reverence for, the past.
The incredible belief this team has is what sets it apart from the previous units that represented India. It's been more than two years since that infamous Sydney Test, and they have lost just three more games. Apart from the victories, there have been creditable draws along the way - in Bangalore against Australia, in Napier, in Ahmedabad against Sri Lanka. Those were matches India would have struggled to save in the past. Those were matches where the belief shone in adversity, setting up crucial series wins.
This time, though, they face adversity of a different kind: with Dravid and Yuvraj out, and VVS Laxman not yet certain to play, they go in with their most inexperienced middle order since Dravid became a permanent member of the side in the mid-nineties. Every observer is waiting, everybody wants a peek into the future, everybody wants to know if India can make winning a habit, or if they will have to start all over again, when Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman eventually go.
That's the kind of chink South Africa will look to exploit in a two-match series where margins will be fine for both sides. They have statistically been the best visitors to the country in the last decade, winning one series, drawing one, and losing one since 2000, a record any side visiting India would be proud of. However, on this trip they come with problems of their own, which are unique in that they go beyond cricket.
The last time they came to Nagpur, South Africa shook the cricketing world. Sometimes mild tremors are still felt. This time, they were themselves shaken before coming to Nagpur. The upheaval back home - Mickey Arthur resigning and the sacking of the selectors - and a drawn home series against England wasn't the best preparation for one of the most difficult cricket tours. Yet they arrived quietly confident, with a largely settled batting order and an aggressive new-ball combination. They also come without huge expectations, they are not being talked up, and they have shown in the past that's when they are at their most dangerous.
Form guide (last 5 completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa WDLDW
Watch out for
S Badrinath has been scoring runs in domestic cricket for years. Consistently. About 18 months ago, he pleaded for one chance to fail. Since then, fate played a new game with him. He kept getting agonisingly close to the Test team, but that was where it ended. Months later, he was in the squad for the Australia series, but it was M Vijay, his Tamil Nadu team-mate, who came out of nowhere and grabbed with both hands the opportunity at the top. So well did Vijay do that he became the No. 1 choice for any middle-order vacancy. Finally, though, Badrinath's chance to fail has arrived, through injuries to Dravid and Yuvraj, and because only six batsmen were selected in the squad. We are on to either a Michael Hussey or an Ajay Sharma. Knowing Badrinath's career progress, though, don't be surprised if fate still contrives to keep him out of the starting XI. Rohit Sharma has already been asked to stay back as cover for Laxman.
Morkel and Steyn. "We have got bowlers in our attack who can bowl at 140-plus consistently. We would be stupid to not use the short ball, and not try to intimidate the batsmen," says Morne Morkel. "I've said many times before, a 150 or 145 km yorker is absolutely no different whether you bowl it here in Nagpur, Chennai, Johannesburg, Perth… It's the skill behind the delivery, what the planning is behind the delivery, that is what counts at the end of the day," says Dale Steyn. Time to bring it on now.
India should bat M Vijay, an opener by trade, at No. 3 and Badrinath at No. 6. That splits up the two inexperienced batsmen. If Laxman isn't fit - he has been batting in the nets but with a strapped left thumb - Rohit could become the second debutant in the match: captain of the Board President's XI for the tour game in Nagpur, he was asked to stay back as cover. There is little indication as to who out of Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha will be able to grab the last chair when the music stops.
India (probable): 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Gautam Gambhir, 3 M Vijay, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 VVS Laxman, 6 S Badrinath, 7 MS Dhoni (capt/wk), 8, Harbhajan Singh, 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 Amit Mishra/Pragyan Ojha, 11 Ishant Sharma.
South Africa's big question is which spinner to play. Paul Harris has been their lead Test spinner for a while, has bowled a lot of overs in the last year, should have been the lead spinner for this series too, but Manish Pandey and Abhishek Nayar took him for 71 runs in 12 wicketless overs in the tour game. Johan Botha got one wicket in the same game. It was an anybody-bowls-but-only-11-bat match, and Botha was sent in to bat and not Harris. Don't know how much to read into it. The rest of the XI selects itself.
South Africa (probable): 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Ashwell Prince, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers, 6 JP Duminy, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Johan Botha/Paul Harris, 9 Wayne Parnell, 10 Dale Steyn, 11 Morne Morkel.
Pitch and conditions
The South Africans would be naïve if they expect the same amount of life in the pitch for the Test match as they move from the old VCA Ground to the new VCA Stadium. But they have been happily surprised by the weather here, which was pleasant when they arrived and has turned to overcast leading into the Test. There were showers two days before the Test, the day before the match was mildly nippy and cloudy, and the forecast is for more of same.
Stats and trivia
- Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag, at 2778 runs, are 233 short of becoming India's most prolific opening partnership. Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan hold the record.
- Since Yuvraj Singh in 2003, no Indian has made a debut in the middle order. Badri will be the first.
- Mark Boucher is nine dismissals short of becoming the first wicketkeeper to have assisted in 500 dismissals.
"I think these days in the subcontinent you will be coming in a bit later to bat, when the ball is reverse swinging. To adjust to that is a challenge and it is something I'm looking forward to."
Hashim Amla on the eve of the Test.
"There's some uncertainty over Laxman, who was in the nets today. He will come back and share with physio how he feels. Other than that all others are fit."
MS Dhoni could be without another experienced middle-order batsman.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo