India look to erase bad Durban memories
Kingsmead has few happy memories for India, outside of the 2003 World Cup, but they arrived in Durban on Wednesday afternoon aware that five days of the discipline and grit shown at the Wanderers will take them close to perhaps their most celebrated Test series win in recent memory. Less than a month ago, they left Durban with abuse from Indian supporters still resounding in their ears, having been bowled out for 91 in a 157-run one-day defeat, and the old-timers like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid will still grimace when they recall the slide to 100 and 66 all out against Allan Donald and company a decade ago.
It doesn't help that India do poor encores. The scarcely believable victory at Adelaide - Australia had made 400 for 5 on the opening day - was followed by a nine-wicket defeat at the MCG, where they squandered the initiative given them by Virender Sehwag's audacious 195. A few months later, in Pakistan, they slipped up again. Rahul Dravid led India to their first win on Pakistani turf, a comprehensive triumph by an innings at Multan, but a week later at Lahore, the batting order crashed and burned against Umar Gul, with only Yuvraj Singh and Irfan Pathan saving face. That too was a nine-wicket defeat, and Dravid admitted at the post-match press conference in Johannesburg that India needed to be wary of a similar blip in Durban.
Luckily for India, South Africa have plenty of problems of their own. Dale Steyn limped out at the Wanderers, and is doubtful for this game. In his absence, there was a sameness to the attack that would have worried the team management, despite a splendid performance from Shaun Pollock, who went past 400 Test victims in the game. Makhaya Ntini was flat and erratic, while Andre Nel veered between two extremes, bowling some excellent deliveries interspersed with phases where he let ego and aggression dictate matters.
Even before the first-Test debacle, Mickey Arthur, South Africa's coach, had requested for pitches with plenty of pace and bounce, adding that he didn't fancy a grassy surface. After his top order was ruthlessly exposed on a surface that offered bounce without being especially quick, it remains to be seen what instructions will be passed on to the curator at Kingsmead. Only Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman made half-centuries for India, but several of the others also showed far greater application and awareness of the conditions than their South African counterparts. With the exception of Ashwell Prince and Jacques Kallis, the batting was simply wretched, and a reshuffle of sorts is expected, with AB de Villiers moving up to partner Graeme Smith at the top of the order.
Smith's travails epitomise those of his team. He made some bold pronouncements in Australia last summer, and was then taken apart by an Australian pace line-up that takes considerable joy in exposing shallow talk. The misery continued in the return series, and with the exception of the Centurion one-day game earlier this month, he has barely put bat to ball against the Indians. Both Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth have zoomed in on his tendency to play across his front pad, and Durban will be a real test of his character, with the team also under the pump.
From being prohibitive favourites to win the series - Haroon Lorgat, convener of the selection panel, spoke confidently to an Indian newspaper about a 3-0 whitewash - the South Africans will arrive in Durban on Friday staring at the spectre of only a second series defeat to non-Australian opposition since their readmission to the world game in 1991. As for the Indians who left Durban last month as badly beaten as one of Mike Tyson's early victims, they must resist the urge to pinch themselves and focus on the task in hand, starting with a two-day game against a KwaZulu Natal Invitation XI on Friday.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo