Rest of South Africa v Indians, Potchefstroom December 6, 2006

India desperate for top order to fire

Leading from the front: 'VVS Laxman has always been rated as an astute leader on the domestic circuit, but this will be his first experience of leading the Indians' © Getty Images

In other circumstances, this would have been just a nondescript tour game, an opportunity to rest some big names and try out some new faces. But having started the tour so miserably, the Indians now have no option but to play the four-day game against Rest of South Africa with full intensity, in the hope that their misfiring batsmen will finally get some runs on the board ahead of the first Test, which starts in Johannesburg on December 15.

With Rahul Dravid still on the mend after a fractured finger, VVS Laxman, who flew in less than a week ago, will lead a side that includes three former captains - Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag. Laxman, a pleasant peaceable man, has always been rated as an astute leader on the domestic circuit, but this will be his first experience of leading the Indians.

Ganguly's return after nearly a year ago is eagerly anticipated, but shouldn't obscure the larger picture - that each man in the top order has struggled for form in recent times. Wasim Jaffer was included in the one-day side, but made just 10 runs from two innings, while neither Sachin Tendulkar nor Virender Sehwag could produce even a smidgen of the quality that their team-mates have come to expect from them.

Tendulkar, who has some bruising on the bone in his forearm, should be fit to play, and the Indians will leave out Gautam Gambhir. Irfan Pathan, who picked up a Test hat-trick while leading the attack less than a year ago, will occupy the allrounder's slot, leaving the pace bowling in the hands of Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and VRV Singh. Zaheer has been around for years without being able to nail down a place, while Sreesanth and VRV have five Test caps between them. With Anil Kumble rested for the game, and Munaf Patel looking increasingly unlikely to play the first Test, it's very much a case of learning on the job for the younger quick bowlers.

They will be up against fairly formidable opposition. Jacques Rudolph and Justin Kemp have represented the national team in recent times, while Mornantau Hayward and Paul Adams are faces from the past. Jean Paul Duminy is a highly-rated batsmen, as is Alviro Peterson. And in his last-page column in SA Cricket magazine, Allan Donald spoke in glowing terms about the 1.93m Morne Morkel, who many South Africans see as their next big pace-bowling hope.

Morkel, Hayward, Garnett Kruger and Vernon Philander should give the Indians a taste of what lies in store at the Wanderers, and Paul Adams's frog-in-a-blender action will raise a few eyebrows. But Sedgars Park is rated by most as the flattest pitch in South Africa, and India will hope that this quiet university town in South Africa's northwest signified a fork in the road after several months of misery.


Rest of South Africa: 1 Morne van Wyk (wk), 2 Alviro Peterson, 3 Jean Paul Duminy, 4 Jacques Rudolph (capt), 5 Vaughn van Jaarsveld, 6 Justin Kemp, 7 Vernon Philander, 8 Morne Morkel, 9 Mornantau Hayward, 10 Garnett Kruger, 11 Paul Adams.

Indians: 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Wasim Jaffer, 3 VVS Laxman (capt), 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Sourav Ganguly, 6 Irfan Pathan, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), 8 Harbhajan Singh, 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 VRV Singh, 11 Sreesanth.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo