'It's dangerous to write us off' - Dravid
Few people give them a chance against a side that have lost only 13 of 72 home Tests since readmission, eight of them to mighty Australia, but India remain quietly confident that they can spring a surprise when the series gets underway at the Wanderers on Friday. India have already picked their 12 for the game, with Harbhajan Singh likely to ferry drinks, and Rahul Dravid asserted that India's dismal record in South Africa would be incentive enough as they prepare to face a formidable pace attack on a hard, bouncy pitch that showcases some interesting cracks.
"It's the only country in the world where we have never won a Test match, and that in itself is a great motivation," said Dravid. "It's been a disappointing few months, but we bounced back in the West Indies [after losing the one-day series], and we can take heart from that. The boys are very keen. We had a couple of good training sessions and a good meeting this morning. There's a lot of ability in the group, and the top six or seven have done well all over the world. We have got the tools, now it's up to us to implement the plans and perform well over five days."
According to the ICC rankings, India are a better Test side than South Africa, but Dravid insisted that they wouldn't amount to much when the game got underway. "I don't look at the rankings," he said. "If you're not No.1, the rest doesn't matter, it doesn't make much of a difference. It's probably a good reflection of current form, over the last one or two years. That's all."
The 4-0 drubbing in the one-day series has left many expecting the worst from the Tests, but Dravid suggested that India would draw on some impressive away performances in the recent past as they bid to walk onto the park in the best possible frame of mind. "People have written us off and that's a dangerous thing to do with the quality we have," he said. "I have kept telling the boys to be positive, have been reminding them of the good performances in the recent past in away Tests.
|[The pitch is] hard and dry, and it can be more difficult to play the seamers than the spinners on the fourth and fifth days ... But we have to pick a side for a pitch on day one, and see that the best guys set it up for us for the fourth and fifth days|
"We won our last series abroad, and have gone through videos of times when we have had success. We have spoken about South Africa, the lines and lengths we expect them to bowl at us, and what we need to be bowling on these tracks. I have been trying to keep the spirits up, and they have been."
The pitch itself didn't appear to worry him unduly. He and Greg Chappell, the coach, arrived at the ground before the rest of the team, and had a good look at the surface accompanied by Dilip Vengsarkar, the chairman of selectors. "There are a few cracks, but it won't turn viciously," he said. "The cracks are similar to what you see on Australian pitches. It's hard and dry, and it can be more difficult to play the seamers than the spinners on the fourth and fifth days, when it plays a bit up and down. But we have to pick a side for a pitch on day one, and see that the best guys set it up for us for the fourth and fifth days."
That seemed an indirect way of saying that Harbhajan would miss out, with India opting for Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and VRV Singh in addition to the wealth of experience provided by the inimitable Anil Kumble. And though his team had been rocked by Dale Steyn's pace in the one-day warm-up at Benoni, Dravid emphasised that India wouldn't make the mistake of concentrating solely on one or two individuals. "Steyn bowled well in the game against us in Benoni," he said. "We have seen videos of him against Sri Lanka too. He's good young bowler, but it's an advantage for us that we played him in Benoni, and know what to expect. But I won't focus only on Steyn. They have a pretty good attack all round, and we need to play well against all of them."
And though his finger, still bound with a gauze-and-splint contraption, will prevent him from fielding in the slips, Dravid was confident that he would be able to play his part with the bat in conditions where he has often excelled. "I'm happy with the way I'm feeling," he said. "I practised at the nets for a couple of days and didn't feel any discomfort. Fielding in the slips is still an issue, and I will not stand there at least for the first Test. That's what I've been advised."
The Wanderers is a venue that brings back some special memories for India's captain, the scene of his first Test century back in January 1997. "The Wanderers has been a very memorable ground for me," he said. "It's my favourite ground in South Africa. I won't forget my first hundred. I can remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday. Also, we got to play in the World Cup final here, and it was a big thing for all the boys, even if the result wasn't what we would have wanted it to be. Hopefully, we can take the good memories into this game."
The strident criticism from back home following the one-day debacle hadn't preyed on his mind, and he said that a sense of perspective was needed in both good times and bad. "I have always understood what the fans go through," said Dravid. "It's an emotional game in India, and the reactions tend to be over the top, be it in praise or criticism. That's one of my big challenges, to keep things in perspective in the dressing-room. We can't get carried away with either criticism or praise. We need to maintain a balance. I keep telling the boys when we are winning that we're not as good as they say we are, and when we're losing, we're not as bad as they say we are."
As for the personal burden, it came with the territory and the privilege of being able to lead the national side. "There's pressure on the captain when the team isn't doing well," he said. "You are a sort of figurehead, and you take the criticism as it comes. Some of it is fair, some of it is not fair. You have got to take it in your stride."
The sheer magnificence of his batting won India the final Test and series in Jamaica not so long ago, and an encore might well be needed if the dreadful run on South African soil isn't to continue. But if there's one man you can count on to fight the flames on the burning deck, it's Dravid, cricket's answer to Red Adair.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo