South Africa v India, 1st Test, Centurion December 15, 2010

Zaheer almost certain to miss first Test

India find themselves in their usual predicament of having to start a series without one of their big players. This time, on a tour of reckoning of sorts, it's their best bowler over the last three years, Zaheer Khan, who is struggling with a hamstring injury and is almost certainly going to miss the Centurion Test starting Thursday. "We'll take a call tomorrow morning before the start of the game," MS Dhoni said. "He is quite doubtful for tomorrow."

Dhoni knows how big a blow it will be to lose Zaheer, because while Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth might be dangerous, they don't quite guarantee the level of control that Zaheer does. "Zak has been our best bowler who has always led the bowling attack, whatever the conditions may be, whether it is a flat track or a seaming track," Dhoni said on the eve of the first Test. "He is always one bowler who has done really well. It is a blow, but at the same time we have to see the longer picture. We have to think about the World Cup also. We are so close to the World Cup, and any injury to any of your best 11 players may have a bigger impact, so that's also a bit of a concern. Till we are 100% sure about his fitness and injury, we won't risk playing him."

Leading up to the Test, over the two full training days in Centurion, Zaheer bowled only a few overs in the nets. On the first day, he only did fitness drills with Paul Close, the team physio. On the second, Zaheer manned the goalpost in a warm-up football game before a workout with Close and bowled for a bit in the nets. India didn't train on the eve of the match because it was raining in Johannesburg; at any rate they only do light training on the day before the match.

While Dhoni might not have sounded very hopeful, team sources didn't quite rule out Zaheer playing the first Test. "It is tight, but we are hopeful," is the general refrain. It is the nature of the injury - hamstring, and not picked by scans until two days ago - that makes the Indian team wary. If he risks playing, and aggravates it early on in the game, not only will he be gone for the whole Test, but for much longer, for these injuries take some time healing . If Zaheer does miss out, this will be the second such instance this year. In July, when India travelled to Sri Lanka without Zaheer, Sreesanth pulled up injured in the first training session in the country, and was sent back to India, leaving the team with Ishant Sharma and rookie Abhimanyu Mithun to share the workload on unresponsive tracks. Should Zaheer not make it, the rookie this time will be either Umesh Yadav or Jaidev Unadkat. Which begs the question of the national selectors as to where Mithun is, after he did commendably on a seam bowlers graveyard on a short notice.

However, it could be a great opportunity for one out of Unadkat and Yadav, with Unadkat being the favoured one right now by the virtue of being a left-arm medium-pacer. "We'll have to see [as to who replaces Zaheer]," Dhoni said. "Whoever plays will be making his debut whether it is Unadkat or Yadav. We will discuss with some other senior players, and accordingly pick the best possible XI."

That Dhoni discussed the prospects for a debutant made Zaheer's chances sound slimmer. "It's very important to enjoy the game rather than thinking about who you are replacing," Dhoni said, of whoever gets to play in Centurion. "Zak has done really well for us, but at the same time the guy who will be making his debut, what will be important for him will be to bowl to his strengths, what he knows the best, because of which he is a part of the international side right now. Enjoying the moment is one of the important things, rather than getting caught up with the expectation level and the pressure."

It will have to be a fast bowler to replace Zaheer because there is no way India are playing two spinners on a green pitch under overcast skies. However, Dhoni said he has seen greener tracks than the grassy, damp one that awaits them on Thursday. "Frankly speaking, when we saw the pitch yesterday it was a green track, but I don't think there was enough grass on the wicket," Dhoni said. "It is a normal Centurion wicket, which means it will assist the fast bowlers. But the greenest track I have seen in South Africa was the T20 game we played against the South Africans in the 2007 World Twenty20. I don't think this is anywhere close to the Dubran wicket that we saw then."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo