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December 14, 2006
India have never won a Test in nine attempts on South African soil, but if there's one venue that's been relatively kind to them, and where they can repose some hope, it's the Wanderers. Their last Test here was nearly 10 years ago, when Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly were the new hopes of Indian cricket, and they will once again need the batsmen to get things right to alter the course of a tour that has been the equivalent of a wilderness trek ever since Dale Steyn's pace rocked them in a warm-up game at Benoni.
Unlike Durban or Cape Town, venues for the next two Tests and ones where India haven't even had a sniff, the Wanderers hasn't been a South African stronghold. Their last encounter here should have seen the Indians victorious - South Africa slumped to 95 for 7, chasing 356 for victory - but a brilliant century from Daryll Cullinan and his 127-run partnership with Lance Klusener saved the game.
Graeme Smith's team will also need to erase painful memories of the last match played here, a two-wicket defeat to Australia, with the now-retired Damien Martyn scoring a magnificent century in pursuit of 292. South Africa have lost two of their last five here, and the request from Mickey Arthur for a fast, bouncy pitch suggests a desire to play to their strengths and India's weakness.
Johannesburg has enjoyed some sunny days of late, and the cracks on the pitch were a focus of much attention during Graeme Smith's press conference. The surface is bone-hard and there should be excellent bounce, but if the sun keeps beating down, the parched-earth look might well suit a certain Anil Kumble. That said, no one will enjoy the quicker deliveries taking off after landing on the cracks, especially not when facing the likes of Steyn. Though the ball might seam around a little early on, winning the toss and batting first would appear to be a given, despite the team batting second having won five of the last 10 Tests here.
There was a steady ten-minute downpour as the Indians wrapped up their afternoon training session, but cloudy overhead conditions or sunshine, plenty of questions will be asked of the batsmen once the umpires call play. On a pitch where technical adroitness will come to the fore, the likes of Dravid and Jacques Kallis will be pivotal players.
This has been one of those rare matches with little guesswork needed in the build-up to the game. South Africa's XI was finalised the minute Steyn recovered from a quadriceps strain, and VRV Singh's display at Potchefstroom surely means that Irfan Pathan will sit this one out, despite his superb batting in that match.
India's batting was as thin as paper in the one-day game, but the inclusion of the likes of Ganguly and VVS Laxman in the Test XI gives it a far steadier look. It may be South Africa who need to worry about the middle order, with both Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers relatively inexperienced at this level, though de Villiers has smashed three superb centuries in a short career.
Dravid's return after a broken finger ruled him out of the final two ODIs will undoubtedly bolster India's batting. He has fond memories of this ground, having scored 148, his first Test century, and 81 in the match a decade ago. For South Africa, any one of their frontline pace quartet - Kallis is not a bad fifth option - could do the damage. There's also Kumble, who took his first five-for here back in 1992-93, and who appears to get better with every game even in his 37th year.
There are few venues as awe-inspiring, right from the Perspex tunnel that the players have to walk through to the steep stands behind each sightscreen. The real noise though will come from the grassy embankment. Defeat to Australia left a bitter taste, and an emphatic drubbing of the Indians will be what most of the punters look for as they sip the lager and ponder last-minute Christmas shopping.
South Africa (likely): 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Herschelle Gibbs, 3 Jacques Kallis, 4 Hashim Amla, 5 Ashwell Prince, 6 AB de Villiers, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Andre Nel, 10 Makhaya Ntini, 11 Dale Steyn.
India (likely): 1 Virender Sehwag 2 Wasim Jaffer, 3 Rahul Dravid (capt), 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 VVS Laxman, 6 Sourav Ganguly, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), 8 Anil Kumble, 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 Sreesanth, 11 VRV Singh.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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A collection of fine cricket writing on great cricket feats, and never mind the omissions
Plays of the Day from the first ODI between South Africa and India in Johannesburg