The top two Test teams, five of the top 10 batsmen and four of the world’s top 10 bowlers. All the portents are there for a compelling three weeks of Test cricket starting this morning at SuperSport Park.
There’s immeasurable quality in both the South African and Indian sides, legendary cricketers too, but both captains have placed a premium on ignoring individuals and looking at the opposition holistically. So Graeme Smith explained on Wednesday that he could highlight the dangers of all the Indian players, but no one wicket was more important than another and no bowler more dangerous than any other.
Still, Smith would have been pleased with the news that emerged on Wednesday afternoon that Zaheer Khan was a doubtful starter. The left-arm swing bowler has been battling with a hamstring injury all week, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni suggested quite strongly yesterday that he wouldn’t play the first Test at least. “We have to look at the bigger picture, the rest of this series, and then there’s the World Cup, so we don’t want to risk him,” said Dhoni.
The tourists are going to have a final look at how he shapes on Thursday morning, but if, as Dhoni suggested, Zaheer has to sit out, then one of Umesh Yadav, a 23-year-old right arm medium pacer who has played three one-day internationals or Jaidav Unadkat, a left-arm medium pacer, will earn a first Test cap.
It would be a massive blow to the Indians, though on the other hand, the South Africans may not have that much information on Yadav or Unadkat.
Smith, not surprisingly, was asked about an impending battle with Zaheer, but sticking to the theme which seems to be the over-riding one for both camps, chose to look at the team ethos.
“He is one of the top bowlers especially at left-handers, he’s been successful against (Matthew) Hayden, myself and a couple of other guys. It’s a challenge against any bowling unit, and with Zaheer being the spearhead and me opening the batting, it’s a natural challenge. I try not to personalise things too much, just focus on the game and what I want to achieve for South Africa,” said Smith.
His adopted the same line when responding to an inquiry about Virender Sehwag, India’s explosive opening bat. “It’s important to note he has been very successful against us in the sub-continent, on the last tour here in the last Test he went down the order to No.7, so he’s got a few demons he needs to put right in these conditions. He’s a quality player and takes a lot of pressure off the rest of their line-up with the way he plays. We’ve discussed him but not more than any other batter in their side.”
Dhoni’s thoughts on this team above the individual theory wouldn’t have changed despite the concerns over Zaheer. He and India will look to one of those two youngsters to step up. Like Smith’s explanation about Sehwag, Dhoni’s thoughts on the South Africans are singularly focussed. “It’s not about individuals, this is a team sport, we don’t want to think about Graeme Smith or Jacques Kallis, for us it’s about the process, and making sure we prepare accordingly,” the Indian captain said this week.
However, no one can run away from the mouth-watering battles that the series can potentially serve up. Steyn v Sehwag, Morkel v Dravid, Steyn and Morkel v Tendulkar and Laxman, Ishant v Amla; Harbhajan v De Villiers; everywhere one looks there are clashes of skill and reputation.
Certainly India’s status as Test cricket’s No.1 team faces its sternest examination over the next few weeks. Win this series – which would be a first for an Indian team on South African soil and that ranking looks justified – lose and it will look very shallow.
“To be No1 in the world means you have to be consistently performing around the world. When Australia held the mantle, they were beating teams in their backyard all the time. As much as you want to be strong at home, you want to be strong away from home too, that pressure is on India,” said Smith.
The other big player in the next few days will be the pitch. It was still being prepared under a canvas tent on Wednesday due to the bad weather – Dhoni reckoned that the captain that won the toss would have the game “60-percent under his control” and hinted that he may bowl first. More rain has been forecast for Thursday, which would make conditions conducive to bowling should the players get onto the field.
It may also impact on South Africa’s selection. A seaming pitch – which Smith thought it would be because of the way it’s been prepared – might see South Africa go for the extra batting security in the form of Ryan McLaren. He and Lonwabo Tsotsobe had a vigorous session on an adjacent pitch with bowling coach Vincent Barnes on Wednesday and though Tsotsobe has bowled well lately – in the one-day format – McLaren’s form has been good too domestically and his better batting skill may win out.