Dhoni defends bowlers after de Villiers' attack
Moments before MS Dhoni spoke, a day before India's first international on the tour,AB de Villiers laid down the gauntlet. When asked if South Africa could actually be considered underdogs in a home series, given their recent record in ODIs and India's No. 1 status in the ICC rankings, de Villiers said there was no way South Africa were going to stand back and allow that to happen. He said it should not be forgotten they were playing in home conditions, against a subcontinent team, one that has "a very bad record" in the country.
There wasn't much wrong in what de Villers said. India have never won a bilateral series in South Africa. Of the 25 ODIs they have played against South Africa here, they have won just five. The thing with the Indian team under MS Dhoni, though, is they don't pay much heed to these statistics. Most of Dhoni's players have come here with a clean slate, and carry the confidence of a good year behind them.
Dhoni said the numbers didn't bother him overly. "Before you asked me, that was not on my mind," he said. "I will try to make sure it doesn't stay in there."
Part of the reason for Dhoni's confidence is that two of those five wins came under him, on the last trip. "Yes we haven't done well," he said, "But there were instances, even the last time we came here, we had a good opportunity to win the series but we didn't cash in on that. So it is important we play well. Only thing is, in a three-match series it becomes a little difficult if a team lags behind and loses the first game. There is extra pressure on the team that has lost the first game."
The first game is important as it is the one India are least prepared for. It's the same old feeling. Invariably, India go into their first away match with little acclimatisation. Invariably, weather turns up to complicate matters. Over the last three days, Johannesburg's weather has been giving Melbourne and Auckland an inferiority complex. Stars were visible at 4.30am on Wednesday. It was foggy at 5am, sunny at 8am, rainy at 10am, back to unbearably sunny an hour later, and cold minutes later, before it became sunny again. Rain is expected to affect the match on Thursday, and there will almost certainly be dew at night. Even a mobile phone becomes damp within 15 minutes of its staying out in the open.
And dew is one factor, according to Dhoni, that has given his side's bowling a bad name. "What's important is how much you exploit the conditions. It's not about having the best bowling attack," Dhoni said, when told that de Villiers had said India's was not the best by a stretch. De Villiers had even suggested batsmen tend to lose wickets underestimating them.
"We have done pretty well," Dhoni said. "There have been ups and downs. Where we have struggled a bit is when there is dew on the field. And when we play on really flat surfaces. That's where our bowlers haven't done outstandingly well. But what we have seen is, if there is a bit of help for them, they have made the most of whatever is on offer. I think overall we are quite happy with the way they have bowled so far, the ups and the downs."
Dhoni is not perturbed by the Indian bowlers' general lack of pace. "If you don't have bowlers who can bowl 145 or 150 [kph], then no point thinking about pace and bounce," he said. "If you have someone who can swing the ball, we will make the most of the conditions here. With [two] new balls they may get a bit of swing initially. Try and get wickets in the first 10 overs, and that can have an impact on the game."
After that, Dhoni joined his team-mates in a game of football, before they began their fielding drills and light batting sessions. As they did so, the bleachers were being cleaned, the hospitality boxes stocked, and the greenish pitch covered. The Wanderers is not quite the MCG, but when you stand in the middle or walk down that famous tunnel you feel it can get intimidating when full, especially when you face up left towards the Golf Course End's steeply rising stands. De Villiers' men, wearing pink for charity, might not look as threatening as the West Indians who added menace to the colour in the 1980s, but they will be ready with whatever they can throw at India.
Will India be prepared for it?
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo