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South Africa v India, 1st Test, Johannesburg

India face trial by pace

Dileep Premachandran at Johannesburg

December 14, 2006

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Rahul Dravid will have fond memories of the Wanderers, having scored his first Test century there © AFP
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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.

The venue

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.

The pitch
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.

The teams
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.



The cracks on the Wanderers surface weren't lost on Graeme Smith © AFP
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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.

Key individuals
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.

The atmosphere
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 Cricinfo

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Dileep Premachandran Associate editor Dileep Premachandran gave up the joys of studying thermodynamics and strength of materials with a view to following in the footsteps of his literary heroes. Instead, he wound up at the Free Press Journal in Mumbai, writing on sport and politics before Gentleman gave him a column called Replay. A move to MyIndia.com followed, where he teamed up with Sambit Bal, and he arrived at ESPNCricinfo after having also worked for Cricket Talk and total-cricket.com. Sunil Gavaskar and Greg Chappell were his early cricketing heroes, though attempts to emulate their silken touch had hideous results. He considers himself obscenely fortunate to have watched live the two greatest comebacks in sporting history - India against invincible Australia at the Eden Gardens in 2001, and Liverpool's inc-RED-ible resurrection in the 2005 Champions' League final. He lives in Bangalore with his wife, who remains astonishingly tolerant of his sporting obsessions.
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