Dhoni wary of tricky one-day conditions
Durban two weeks ago was a big moment for India. They came here battered from Centurion, and in conditions that VVS Laxman described as "some of the most challenging I have encountered in my career", managed to win only their second Test in South Africa. And it came during the series everyone was talking about, the series everyone seemed to be living for. Fittingly, for once, back home in India, it was the Tests that were the end of the world. Now that the ODIs are upon us, on the eve of the first match, it comes almost as a realisation that India have managed to beat South Africa in South Africa in this format only on one more occasion than they have in Tests. And they have made more attempts, 20 one-dayers as opposed to 15 in Tests.
Difficult as it may sound, it is time to put that incredible Test series behind, and start focussing on setting this record right too. South Africa, in comparison, have done much better in India, winning nine and losing 13 to the hosts. If other opposition were to be included, they have won more than they have lost in India, which can't be said of India in South Africa, despite wins against Namibia, Netherlands and Kenya that boost the number a bit.
"We did lose all the games [the last time India played a bilateral one-day series in South Africa]," MS Dhoni said. "There's only one way to go - you can only go up from there. But as I say it's not about the past. The Test series was very different from 2006, and as we always say, we have a completely different side. We have quite a few youngsters who are into the grooming phase, which means at the end of the day, it's a win-win situation for Indian cricket."
Playing ODIs in South Africa is a unique challenge in a way. The pitches offer good bounce and aid stroke-play, while the outfields are rarely large or slow, but there is enough seam movement on most occasions to keep the fast bowlers in the game. From afternoon to night, the weather can easily go from summer to winter at most of the venues.
"You have to start respecting the bowlers right from the very start," Dhoni said of the one-day conditions in South Africa. "The white Kookaburra ball does a bit initially, which means if you see the new ball off, the older ball comes on to the bat nicely, which means you can play your strokes. Most of the grounds are not very big.
"It's good to bat during the day time. It does slightly less compared to the evening session. Under lights the ball does a bit more compared to the afternoon session. The toss becomes a bit crucial. But even after winning the toss you have to do the basics right."
India aren't ideally placed in terms of their squad strength, with Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir out as precautionary measure for the World Cup that will follow this five-match series, and Praveen Kumar returning home after injuring his elbow on the eve of the first match. This has been the case with the India team for a while: they haven't been able to play a full-strength side since the five-match series in New Zealand in early 2009.
"It would have been good to feature the main XI," Dhoni said. "Since last February, we haven't played the full XI that maybe featured in the first game of the World Cup. But we are risking injury. We have to save quite a few players. We have a fair amount of niggles. We don't want to miss any of the key players just before the start of the World Cup. Most of them have missed the whole season. I don't mind them missing one more series as long as they are available right through the World Cup."
We live in an age where every bilateral limited-overs series is becoming more meaningless than the previous one. This one is not too different, in that it draws its entire context from being a preparatory event for the World Cup. Stuck as it is between an awesome Test series and the World Cup, this series will need the best of India, to survive in isolation.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo