The three-Test series between South Africa and India starting in Centurion on Thursday has been dubbed a contest between South African bowling and Indian batting. For Morne Morkel, the crux of that battle will be between the openers on both sides of that equation.
"Gautam [Gambhir] and [Virender] Sehwag upfront are very dangerous. Not long ago Gautam was No. 1 in the world and we all know how destructive Virender can be against the new ball," Morkel said at a press conference in Centurion on Tuesday. "It's a contest we are looking forward to especially here on South African wickets where you don't just have five overs where the new ball is vital - it tends to bounce for a bit longer."
Morkel knows the Centurion pitch very well. He plies his domestic trade at SuperSport Park for the Titans and has observed a few changes in the strip he has bowled on for so many years. "They've changed the square a little bit and there is a little more life in the wicket," he said. Being on national duty has meant that Morkel has not played many franchise games, but in the one first-class match he managed to fit in this season he was impressed with the deck. "We asked for a nice quick wicket then and we bowled out the Warriors for 70-odd. The pace and bounce was very good."
With wet weather hanging over the Highveld, the bowlers are likely to benefit from a pitch more lively than a Jack Russell puppy. "If there are overcast conditions like we've had, who wouldn't put his hand up to bowl first?" Morkel asked and enthusiastically almost raised his hand as well. Before he could do that, he stopped himself and reminded the audience that the South African seamers were going to be bowling to a very competent Indian line-up.
Even though coach Corrie van Zyl didn't think the time India's batsmen spent in South Africa during the IPL and Champions League would benefit them much, Morkel disagreed. "The way they have been playing in the IPL and the CLT20, they have definitely improved their game on South African conditions." Morkel also thinks India's coach, Gary Kirsten, would have passed on a few vital tips for his troops. "Gary Kirsten has got all the insides and knows how to play on SA wickets, so the he would have been a big help for them for how to play on a bouncy wicket."
While the focus has been on one side of the contest, Ashwell Prince thinks that the other side could be just as important especially because Indian pace attack will also enjoy responsive pitches. "We respect the Indian seam attack. They normally do very well in subcontinent conditions which don't support the fast bowlers much and they must be looking forward to having assistance from our wickets."
Although the wickets are being prepared for seamers, Prince did not negate the role Harbhajan Singh will play for India. "He will be a threat as he is one of the best in the world. I'm sure he is looking forward to the series as well. Graeme Swann had good series in SA last year and at moment Swann is rated the best spin bowler in the world. Maybe Harbhajan would like to have his say about that and look to make an impact."
Prince expects "some movement off the seam," but doesn't think the bowlers will be the only ones enjoying some time in the sun. "If it's 34 degrees and the pitch bakes, it will be a good wicket to bat on."