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December 31, 2006
If you'd told the average Indian at the end of the catastrophic one-day series that they'd be heading to Cape Town, and the most beautiful ground in the world, on level terms in the Tests, you might have been greeted with an incredulous look or two. But a month on, the team arrives at Newlands with more than a tinge or two of regret. Having won so convincingly against all odds at the Wanderers, they had more than their fair share of opportunities at Durban. But South Africa's greater desperation prevailed on a tense weather-interrupted final day, leaving the series beautifully poised.
When they look back at the Kingsmead game, India will be able to isolate two or three key moments where the game slipped away. On the opening day, Sachin Tendulkar gave Ashwell Prince a reprieve at slip. Prince, then on 41, went on to make a doughty 121, putting together a priceless 73 with the last two batsmen on the second morning.
When India batted, Tendulkar provided a measure of atonement by managing his first half-century of the year. But with the situation in control, he played a distinctly ordinary shot to give South Africa a toe in the door. The tail wagged as it has done all series, but a deficit of 88 was always going to be hard to bridge.
They still gave themselves a chance, with the outstanding Sreesanth sparking a collapse that saw South Africa lose six second-innings wickets for 44. But again, they couldn't finish the task, with Shaun Pollock's unbeaten 63 buttressed by valuable cameos from Andrew Hall and the impressive Mornè Morkel.
The vagaries of the weather, and the grey skies that descended every afternoon meant that survival was still very much an option, but India's batting the second time was as woeful as it could possibly have been. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's brave 47 delayed the inevitable and offered tantalising glimpses of light, but the abject failure of the top order put too much pressure on those that followed. With Makhaya Ntini leading the line splendidly, South Africa always had that little bit in reserve.
India's bowlers could still feel proud of their efforts, with Sreesanth taking his series tally to 16 wickets, and the attack will be further strengthened by the return of Munaf Patel in Cape Town. VRV Singh bowled with real pace and menace in patches, but has yet to acquire the consistency needed at this level. If his ankle gives him no trouble, Munaf will be a far tougher proposition, capable of extracting steep bounce off a naggingly accurate length. With Zaheer Khan causing all manner of problems with the new ball, and Anil Kumble applying the tourniquet, South Africa certainly won't enjoy facing India's four-man attack.
Unfortunately, rapid strides on the bowling front have gone hand-in-hand with a steady regression on the batting side of things. Wasim Jaffer got good starts in both innings at Kingsmead, but his partnership with Virender Sehwag has been a non-starter all tour. The team management isn't in favour of drastic action - there was a great deal of heartburn over sending Irfan Pathan home - but Sehwag's wretched form demands drastic measures. Expect Gautam Gambhir to be padding up at Newlands.
The other less likely change could be behind the stumps. Despite a couple of fingers on his right hand being terribly bruised, Dhoni showed tremendous courage both with the bat and the big gloves in Durban, though you could clearly see him grimacing each time he collected a delivery sent down at nearly 140 km/h. With Dhoni being such an integral part of the World Cup plans, he might not be risked unless the team management is certain that he can handle five more days of finger-pounding. Though the man himself would be loathe to miss out, Dinesh Karthik is a more than capable deputy.
South Africa's problems also centre around their top order. Graeme Smith finally made some runs in Durban, but if Jacques Kallis returns from a back injury, Hashim Amla might have to make way at No.3. The other option is Jacques Rudolph, though he did fail in both innings in the tour game against the Indians at Potchefstroom.
Depending on the surface at Newlands, South Africa may elect to give Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner, a game. If he plays, Andrew Hall could be the one to sit out. The fourth pace slot will also come under the scanner. If he can convince the team that his fitness worries are behind him, Dale Steyn should return, with Morkel making way after a promising debut.
The pitch will attract as much attention as the final XIs. A dry surface that was watered excessively ahead of the Test against Australia earlier this year produced a three-day finish, with Stuart Clark routing the hosts on his debut. But less than two months later, the game against New Zealand was a run-fest, with both team scoring in excess of 500. South Africa will be wary of a surface that's too dry, given Kumble's quality, but as Sreesanth and Zaheer have shown already, even a fast and bouncy pitch won't be any guarantee of success. The various permutations should make for one hell of a game.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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