Last-minute preparations before the big battle
With rain dampening the spirits and chilling the bones, South Africa's cricketers have to traverse the 35km to SuperSport Pak in Centurion to get some outdoor practice in
With rain dampening the spirits and chilling the bones, South Africa's cricketers have to traverse the 35km to SuperSport Pak in Centurion to get some outdoor practice in. As we follow the same trail, we see vast empty plains that are a far cry from the organised streets and bustle of Sandton where the Indian team is staying.
As you approach the ground, you begin to see glimpses of South Africa's unsavoury past. Centurion itself was formerly Verwoerdburg, named after Hendrik Verwoerd, prime architect of Apartheid and a man whose tenure saw the Sharpeville massacre and Nelson Mandela's trial for treason. The road to the stadium is also redolent of the past - John Vorster Drive being a tribute to the prime minister whose intransigence over Basil D'Oliveira's inclusion in England's tour party (1970) led to the Springboks feeling the cold touch of isolation for two decades.
The streets are nearly deserted as we drive towards the stadium gate, and a journalist who was present for the India-Pakistan clash during the 2003 World Cup summons up memories of the day when the entire area was awash with flags and banners from the subcontinent. Centurion is now home to the Nashua Titans, formerly Northern Transvaal, and a franchise that has traditionally been one of the lesser powers in the domestic scheme of things. As you walk into reception, you're greeted by pencil sketches of some of the stars, both yesteryear and current, but apart from Fanie de Villiers, who scripted that epic win in Sydney in January 1994, there are
few names that would be recognised the world over. The Wanderers or Newlands it certainly isn't.
The South African session is a mixture of intense focus and levity. In the 15 minutes that I watch, there are only two no-balls, with the bowlers showing impressive awareness of the popping crease, and at the other end, Herschelle Gibbs and Shaun Pollock - who always appears to come out with a new bat or two - crunch a few powerful shots that endanger any birds that might still be on the branches of faraway trees.
Out on the field, Jonty Rhodes hits up catches and supervises fielding drills, with AB de Villiers taking a couple of stunning catches on the run. It's a luxury that the Indians don't enjoy, with rain in Johannesburg restricting them to another session at the indoor nets. A surprise awaits
when we get there. Virender Sehwag, rated doubtful for Sunday's game, is in one net, striking the ball with such good timing that it renders talk of a serious injury superfluous.
Sachin Tendulkar practises some seam-up bowling, while Ajit Agarkar and Irfan Pathan run in with real purpose. At the second of the nets, Greg Chappell is full of encouraging words as Mohammad Kaif laces some lovely drives against the bowling machine. There's certainly no lack of effort or preparation, with each man spending plenty of time against the bowling machine pegged to different lengths. For Sehwag, several of the deliveries dart in off a good length, a noticeable weakness in recent times, but they invariably disappear into the side netting off the middle of the bat.
Rahul Dravid's press conference in the small gymnasium upstairs is a subdued affair in contrast to some of the hatchet-jobs that masquerade as press conferences back home, and his relaxed manner is reflected by the happy smiles on Indian faces as they leave for the hotel. It remains to be seen whether they'll still be smiling come Sunday night. Makhaya Ntini, never short of a word or a funny gesture, and his bowling mates will certainly do their best to ensure that isn't the case.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo