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February 5, 2010
A month ago, India would have gone into this series as favourites. While they hammered Sri Lanka at home, South Africa were finding it hard to put away an English side that had stunned many by romping to victory in Durban. Then, South Africa squared the series at the Wanderers, and India lost Rahul Dravid to injury. With uncertainty prevailing over the availability of VVS Laxman - he was having his fitness assessed by the physio after a net session in the morning - India suddenly faced that prospect of going into a Test against the best pace attack in the world with a middle order shorn of two pivotal performers.
As things stand, Murali Vijay and S Badrinath will certainly play, with three Test caps between them. Should Laxman also be ruled out, Rohit Sharma too will join Badrinath in making a debut. For Graeme Smith, still smarting after the squandered opportunities against England, it represents an experience-chink that South Africa will be more than happy to exploit. "Guys like Dravid and Laxman are quality players with a huge amount of experience," he said. "They also bring a lot of calmness to the Indian team. It does put pressure on Gambhir and Sehwag up front to maybe take a little bit more responsibility. They no longer have a guy with 10,000 runs at No. 3, who's really the rock of the line-up. The responsibility on Sehwag especially is crucial."
MS Dhoni was philosophical about the injury crisis, suggesting that one man's absence was another's chance to shine. "We'll miss Rahul, but at the end of the day somebody needs to step up and do the work for the team," he said. "International cricket is a challenge, but our openers have done well everywhere. No reason why we can't do it over and over again. We're a team that relies on a good start. After that, we go on to dominate."
The pitch was absolutely devoid of any grassy stubble, and both captains expected a typically Indian surface with the spinners becoming increasingly influential as the game wore on. In such batsmen-friendly conditions, reverse swing is perhaps the quick bowler's most potent weapon, and despite a lush outfield, Dhoni expected both sets of bowlers to use it effectively on a dry and abrasive pitch.
And though there was expected to be no dramatic bounce in the surface, Dhoni suggested that the bouncer would also have immense shock value. "In slow and low conditions, it's difficult to leave the bouncer because you don't know how high it will get," he said. "It's also not easy to play the pull."
India's chances will hinge mainly on how well the two slow bowlers exploit the weaknesses that Graeme Swann found in the southern cape a couple of months ago. Harbhajan Singh is a certain starter, but there are two schools of thought on who will join him. Pragyan Ojha played the final two Tests against Sri Lanka, and the Dhaka game against Bangladesh, but when Sehwag led the side in Chittagong, it was Amit Mishra that got the nod.
Either way, Smith is quietly confident that his batsmen can negotiate the threat. "You have to give credit to Graeme [Swann]," he said. "He bowled really well throughout the series. He's a very different type of bowler to some of the Indian spinners. We were still able to post decent totals throughout that tour back home. I'm happy with the quality we've got. Each player has refined their game plans. Any time you come to India, you expect certain types of pitches, and you expect spin bowling."
The South Africans are certainly a more athletic outfit, though Dhoni insisted that India had a "safe" fielding team. "We're a good catching side, that's what really matters in Test cricket," he said. "When it comes to saving singles, they're definitely a better fielding side though."
Smith spoke of the difficulties involved in preparing for such an abbreviated tour, while Dhoni was just thankful to get some more five-day cricket. "We're happy with what we've got," he said, pointing out that the original schedule hadn't involved any Tests.
Neither man was unduly bothered by the Test rankings, and Dhoni laughed at the idea that this was a battle for supremacy between two young leaders who have done their reputations no harm since taking over the reins. "I'm a better keeper, and he's a better opener," he said with a laugh. "But it's not about the captains. It's a team sport."
India won easily enough in their only previous outing at this splendid new venue, squeezing the life out of Australia's challenge in 2008, but the raw pace of the South African new-ball duo could pose some uncomfortable questions for a line-up that might experience more than a few debut butterflies. Smith doesn't do mental disintegration the Steve Waugh way, but he couldn't resist a neat little jab before heading to the nets and a final tune-up. "We've got everything to gain on this tour," he said, "and India's got everything to lose."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Why the Indian opener would be well advised to shelve the hook and pull in Australia