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January 1, 2007
If India are to win a series on the road for the first time against one of the southern hemisphere's big two, they'll have to do it the hard way. Since South Africa's readmission to the international fold, this picture-perfect venue has been a fortress, with 10 wins and three draws from 16 Tests. The three losses can be discounted, having come against mighty Australia, though Graeme Smith was clearly a little perturbed at the pre-match briefing about the pitch resembling the one on which Stuart Clark routed his side a few months ago.
On the eve of the game, with bright sunshine beating down and not a cloud obscuring the view of Table Mountain, there was a generous smattering of grass on the pitch, and there's a small depression at one end that could result in up-and-down movement as the game wears on. Even if Tuesday dawns sunny and bright, the captain winning the toss will be sorely tempted to bowl first, though the urge to make first use of moisture in the pitch will be tempered by the possibility of having to bat last on a surface that will help the slow bowlers far more than those at the Wanderers and Kingsmead.
Rahul Dravid spent a fair bit of time checking out the pitch, sitting down next to the stumps in Matthew Hayden fashion, after practice was over, and he has a selection quandary to deal with ahead of the toss tomorrow. On form, or lack of it, Virender Sehwag would have to make way for Gautam Gambhir. But unlike a Justin Langer, who replaced Michael Slater and went on to form the greatest opening partnership of the modern era with Hayden, Gambhir is no proven performer. Sehwag's undisputed ability to score destructive centuries might just prevent the axe from falling.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni was the other doubt, having bruised his hands badly in the second Test, and though he came through the practice session, the soreness in his hands might just result in Dinesh Karthik making his first Test apperance since Zimbabwe in September 2005. If that happens, Karthik may even open, with Sehwag dropping down to a middle-order slot where he won't have to contend with the new ball.
As for Munaf Patel, he bowled with his left ankle taped up, but the team management are clearly convinced that he can play a part here after having spent the last few days doing the hard yards at the nets. VRV Singh will be the one to miss out.
South Africa had a few injury concerns of their own, though one of the hometown heroes, Jacques Kallis, recovered sufficiently to take back his place in the XI. It's who he replaces that will be watched closely. Andrè Nel has bruising on the bone in his foot, and his aggression and endurance will be sorely missed if he has to sit out the game.
If Nel does fail a late fitness test - and the convener of selectors, Haroon Lorgat, is no fan of players going into games carrying injuries - Hashim Amla will keep his place in the XI, despite not having played one innings of note in the series. Amla's cause will also be helped by the fact that he made 149 in his last outing here, a high-scoring draw against New Zealand.
Two other changes are likely. Andrew Hall will make way for Paul Harris, the tall left-arm spinner who was on a Kolpak deal with Warwickshire. Harris, who will make his debut, didn't appear to be a big turner of the ball at the net session, but given India's dubious record against left-arm spinners in recent times - Ray Price, Michael Clarke, Ashley Giles and Nicky Boje have all enjoyed some measure of success - South Africa clearly reckon it's a gamble worth taking.
The last change will be one of the hardest to make. Smith announced that Dale Steyn was back to full fitness, and ready to displace Mornè Morkel from the XI, but Morkel's batting in Durban will certainly have to be considered before the choice is made. From time immemorial, South Africa have shown a preference for bowlers who can bat a bit, and Morkel's clearly a cut above Steyn when it comes to wielding the willow.
The last time India played here, Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin shared an unbelievable 222-run partnership, with Tendulkar going on to make 169 before a freakish catch from Adam Bacher ended India's innings 170 runs short of South Africa's 529. They went on to lose by 282 runs.
Back then though, their third seam-bowling option was Dodda Ganesh. The very fact that the outstanding Munaf might have to bowl first change here tells you all you need to know about how far Indian cricket has progressed since. To go even further, they'll need to do what no team other than Australia has done. On the evidence of what happened on a lively pitch at the Wanderers though, you'd be foolish to write them off.
South Africa (likely): 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 AB de Villiers, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 Ashwell Prince, 6 Herschelle Gibbs, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Makhaya Ntini, 10 Paul Harris, 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 Munaf Patel.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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