Dhoni asks for positive intent from batsmen
India find themselves caught in an ODI series that is neither here nor there. This is no preparation for the World Cup by any stretch of the imagination, for the surfaces, the overhead conditions, the pressure, will be completely different in February and March in India. Still, everything is going to be looked at with an eye on the World Cup. If, for example, one of the younger ODI specialist batsmen struggles against the bouncing ball, the team is not likely to fret too much. The conditions, it will be said, will be different in the subcontinent.
The series is not even a chance for the final 11 or 12 players who will be expected to feature in the World Cup to play together; Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Praveen Kumar are already back in India, nursing injuries. Also, winning is looking difficult, especially if even one of the bowlers has an off day, as Ashish Nehra did in the first ODI, in Durban. That leaves the batsmen with a lot to do, and the younger lot is not going to find it easy on bouncy pitches against an attack featuring Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.
The Wanderers game on Saturday will be India's last before the final World Cup squad is announced, which should get rid of any distraction there might be because of the ICC tournament. MS Dhoni, though, wants his side to forget the tournament even before that, saying the second ODI would not have any bearing on who gets picked for the World Cup. "I don't think it is just one performance that will matter," he said. "The guys who have worked hard throughout the year, and have delivered in the last one to one-and-a-half years will get a chance. It will be wrong if you try to select the team on the basis of one performance. We will try to select the best XI [in South Africa]."
That seems to be the best way to go: let the selectors do their job in India, let us do our job of trying our best to win the series here. To do that, India will have to quickly adjust to the conditions here in South Africa. If Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh don't do well, the middle order looks inexperienced despite the number of matches they have played between them.
Dhoni called for better shot selection, but not at the expense of scoring runs at a good pace. "Being selective is important, but positive intent is too because you can't look to [just] survive. There will be something for the fast bowlers initially, especially if you are batting second, but you need to score runs and boundaries off the bad deliveries because that takes the pressure off you. If you are scoring at 2.5 an over, at the end of the day, you are mounting pressure on yourself."
With overcast conditions predicted for Saturday's match, and perhaps rain interruptions too, the bowlers will look for a better showing than in Durban. The job will only become tougher for the batsmen, with more seam movement expected than in Durban, especially if Dhoni keeps up with his form at the toss, which would mean India will be batting under the lights again.
"What we have told ourselves is that the toss is one thing beyond our control. Irrespective of what happens at the toss, we shouldn't really let it have any impact on ourselves because what is important is to give our 100% on the field, and if you are concentrating too hard on the toss, you are not giving your 100% in a way."
Dhoni said the right mindset will be the key to whether India can make a comeback from yet another slow start to a series. "You lose games, you win games. What is important is to have the same mindset throughout the series. It will be very important to start afresh because whatever has happened has happened. You have to start from scratch, we just need to play to our potential."
Duncan Fletcher, South Africa's batting consultant, spoke of the need for his side to stay alert to the kind of comeback India staged in Durban after they were outclassed in the Centurion Test. However, both the sides know, with the difference in quality between India's Test and one-day sides, Wanderers is not as likely to see a comeback as Kingsmead was.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo