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The Preview by Sidharth Monga
February 12, 2010
Match factsFebruary 14-18, 2010
News : Last mile could be the toughest for South Africa
News : South Africa sweat over Smith and Boucher injuries
Features : Fond memories for Laxman and Harbhajan
News : Momentum is with us - de Villiers
Series/Tournaments: South Africa tour of India
This is not merely about the ICC rankings. A series win in India is a big box any team other than India needs to tick if it wants to be the best in the world. Think Australia in their modern heyday and the frustration and the eventual satisfaction the "Final Frontier" brought them. India, on the other hand, pride themselves on their home record, and their claims to being the best will take a big beating if they lose.
A hurriedly planned series plays into South Africa's hands: they have to protect their lead for only one match. In 2008, before they beat both England and Australia in away series, South Africa were in a similar situation - a draw short of a series win in India. Then they failed at one of the more difficult tasks in Test cricket: beating India on a raging turner in India. When South Africans talk of that Kanpur loss now they don't complain about the surface, but what they say has that "Final Frontier missed" ring to it.
Less than two years later, Kolkata is not quite the raging turner. Kolkata is not quite the Final Frontier either: South Africa's last two series have been a loss and a draw at home to Australia and England respectively. Yet this could mark the start of South Africa's return towards the top a fortnight after turmoil hit them through the sacking of their coach and selection committee. The No. 1 ranking, should they win or draw, will be a bonus. Between that and now stands a hurt Indian side that will give it its all to protect that proud record at home.
Not for no reason do India hold that proud record at home. South Africa know that. Only seriously good teams can win series in India, injury-hit or not. Of late this Indian side's immediate response to a Test loss has been a resounding win. After Sydney came Perth, and after Colombo came Galle. After Nagpur, what?
Form guide (last 5 completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa WWDLD
Watch out for
Nothing calms the Indian dressing room like VVS Laxman does. No one handles crisis like Laxman does. India are in right trouble, and Laxman usually delivers at such times.
Dale Steyn is on a roll. Bowling fast, accurate, and swinging it both ways. He has got the ideal support from Morne Morkel and Paul Harris. He knows his job is not done yet.
Gautam Gambhir is not known for going easy on himself. He may have scored five centuries in consecutive matches, and 11 fifty-or-above scores in consecutive matches, but his failure in the Nagpur loss will hurt him more than the preceding success pleased him. And once again, he will be facing Steyn and Morkel at their freshest.
Graeme Smith has announced via Twitter that he is ready to play, despite a fracture in one joint of the small finger on the left hand. "It really is about dealing with pain…" he said in the pre-match press conference. Don't worry about him, though. If he can hold the bat, he will be there. The sight of Smith, still in batting gear, mobbed by his mates, looking the biggest, the most imposing of them all, after the Edgbaston win that finally brought them a series win in England, is still fresh in memory. He won't pass up a chance of similar heroics. Not if he can hold that bat.
Laxman will be back, but he might not bat at No. 3, as is being implored by many, the former coach John Wright included. The idea is to split up the two inexperienced batsmen in the middle order and have them bat at Nos 3 and 6, as opposed to 5 and 6. Amit Mishra is a doubtful starter with the ball after his wicketless sojourn in Nagpur. There are two scenarios that can see him out: Pragyan Ojha coming back or India playing three seamers on a pitch that has some grass, an eventuality MS Dhoni didn't rule out. Sreesanth should come back in any scenario after Ishant Sharma went wicketless in the first Test. India could also fiddle with the idea of getting a left-hand batsman, Suresh Raina, in to break Harris' leg-stump line to the right-hand batsmen.
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/Ishant Sharma, 11 Sreesanth.
South Africa will like to go in with the same XI, but it all depends on how painful Smith's finger fracture is. Should Smith be ruled out, Alviro Petersen is the back-up opener. It doesn't help that Mark Boucher is still not 100% with his back. He passed the gloves to AB de Villiers midway into the training session on match eve and did some low-back exercises.
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 Paul Harris, 9 Wayne Parnell, 10 Dale Steyn, 11 Morne Morkel.
Pitch and conditions
Ever since it became obvious India were losing in Nagpur, speculation was rife that another underprepared track might come to India's rescue in the decider. Not this time. "There is a bit of grass on the wicket so I think the seamers will get a bit of help," MS Dhoni said of the pitch. "It looks quite hard… I don't see much turn happening on the first two days."
Because the Eden Gardens is being redone, the atmosphere won't quite be the same. Forget 90,000, they will struggle to get 45,000 in. "There is no stands on one side of the ground so you can see a bit of breeze going across the field so there will be a bit of help for the seamers," Dhoni said.
Stats and trivia
"I know players have been saying that the rankings are really not at the forefront of our minds, and it's the truth. For me, to look back and know that you have won a Test series in India, that is a terrific achievement. If you look back at some of the things you have achieved as a team, those are the sort of things to have memories of."
Rankings can wait, Graeme Smith wants the series win in India bad.
"It is challenges that make our life interesting. We are looking forward to coming back in the series and doing well, but if it was so easy it would not be called international cricket. We are expecting from the players who are part of the side right now to try to level the series."
MS Dhoni knows a challenge when he sees one.