Dravid confident heading into the lions' den
The dressing room door at the Wanderers tells you that you're now in [Highveld] Lions territory, but Rahul Dravid refused to be pessimistic or intimidated as he looked ahead to Sunday's game against South Africa. While he said that it would be a test of character for the younger members of his side, he was confident that there was enough experience within the ranks to cope with the challenge posed by a South African team that edged Australia 3-2 in a one-day series last March.
"There have been some good past experiences here and some not-so-good ones," he said, when asked whether India's poor record against South Africa in these climes would have any bearing on the outcome. "It's a good thing for this team to be tested on this tour going into some big events next year. We know it's going to be very competitive, really tough and we're going to have to play very well. But the boys are keen to learn and adjust to conditions which they are not used to."
With persistent drizzle forcing them indoors on Friday and Saturday, the batsmen geared up with long sessions against the bowling machine. Virender Sehwag, who was rated an unlikely starter 24 hours ago, came through well on Saturday afternoon, playing a full range of strokes in the nets. "We'll just have a final fitness test depending on his fielding," said Dravid. "Unfortunately, due to the weather, we haven't had a chance to have that practice, but we'll see how he feels tomorrow morning."
Dale Steyn's searing pace proved too hot to handle in the warm-up game, but Dravid reckoned that the more callow men in his squad would only have gained from the experience. "You get off the plane and come up against a pretty good bowling attack on what the South Africans considered an above-average bouncy wicket in Benoni," he said. "But it was a good experience and we'll learn from that. You can see that they're very keen to learn and adapt. In some ways, it's a good early lesson for our boys on what they are going to experience and how they might have to cope."
He also brushed aside suggestions that Indians were more vulnerable against pace than other sides. "We have some proven players, guys who have done very well against fast bowling and who have outstanding records in our country and outside - including getting runs here and the World Cup," he said. "We have some good young players as well, who have to get better and improve."
Dravid himself scored his first Test century at the Wanderers nearly 10 years ago, and his memorable duel with Allan Donald in an ODI at Durban is still remembered by many. "I've always enjoyed playing in South Africa," he said. "You get good sporting wickets that give you a chance. I've always believed that if you have good technique, you have a much broader range of shots to play.
"The key is to get through the initial difficult period and adjust to the bounce but after that, you can actually showcase your skill as a batsman a lot better than at some other places where you have to play a one-dimensional game."
The No.3 slot has had no regular occupant for a while, with Irfan Pathan doing the job on several occasions in the recent past, but Dravid refused to be drawn on whether he would be promoting himself up the order in bowler-friendly conditions. "We're missing a bit of experience with Yuvraj [Singh] in the middle order, so it's a question of getting the balance right," he said. "You might see me come up the order, but I'm mindful of the fact that we can't be too top-heavy as well. We need someone to control the middle and later overs. Probably, we'll use [Mahendra Singh] Dhoni to do the role of Yuvraj."
Despite the fact that only four men reached double figures against Rest of South Africa, Dravid was of the view that India needed to persist with the five-bowler strategy that has often been employed in recent times. "I'm someone who likes to play five bowlers," he said. "Australia are using their allrounder as an opener. Going ahead, we're going to have to be brave and positive. That's the only way I know how to play. We're going to take the bull by the horns. Six batsmen should do the job."
With the overcast conditions suggesting a pace-oriented attack, Anil Kumble is likely to sit out though he picked up 2 for 31 in the warm-up game. "We picked Anil keeping in mind his experience and the kind of conditions we're likely to face in the West Indies," said Dravid. "It was a chance to get him in the squad and for us to dip into his knowledge and experience. He's great guy to have in the side. We may have to pick between one of them on this tour."
Another of those on the comeback trail is Zaheer Khan, and after the savaging that Sreesanth and Munaf Patel got at the hands of Jacques Rudolph and Albie Morkel, he and Ajit Agarkar are likely to be entrusted with the old ball on a pitch where South Africa chased down 434 not so long ago. "We're looking at all sorts of combinations," said Dravid. "Zaheer has bowled very well and is looking very fit and hungry. It's a good sign for us. He also brings his experience - not only in the death overs, which is important, but also right through the innings."
Having lost both previous matches against South Africa at this storied venue, Dravid and his men can only hope that it will be third time lucky on Sunday. South Africa's pedigree on home turf means that they'll have to play out of their skins to do what even Australia couldn't a few months ago.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo