After a decade or more of Australian dominance, this series, beginning today, is the start of the battle for the future.
India: Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Murali Vijay, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman/Rohit Sharma, S. Badrinath, MS Dhoni (Capt-wk), Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Amit Mishra/Pragyan Ojha, Ishant Sharma.
South Africa:Graeme Smith (capt), Ashwell Prince, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Mark Boucher (w-k), Paul Harris, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Wayne Parnell.
Flat, slowish, low bounce, somewhat dry, regular Indian wicket that is expected to take turn from Day 3. Both skippers think reverse swing will play a pivotal role in the game.
There were brief showers on Thursday but Friday was clear and cool. Saturday is expected to be cloudy in part, but the forecast doesn't predict a washout. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 30s.
(Live on Neo Sports at 9.30 am)
It has all the elements of a delicious contest. South Africa's as-yet raw pace pairing of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are up against the world's best opening partnership in Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. The talented combine of AB de Villiers, Ashwell Prince and Hashim Amla, representing the united colours of South Africa, are warily waiting to battle India's tweakers in what Proteas spinner Paul Harris dubbed, “the Mecca for spinners.”
Add two warhorses, Zaheer Khan and Mark Boucher; and two legends — Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis. Finally, throw in two fascinating, powerful young leaders in Graeme Smith and MS Dhoni, swaggering into battle like gladiators of old.
Even though “Dravid will be missed”, as Dhoni put it, and VVS Laxman is iffy, there are enough ingredients in here to stir up a sporting Molotov cocktail. So why then, is it all so low-key? Less than 24 hours before the fight for No. 1 begins, there are no mind-games, no calls to arms, no macho predictions of glory. It's all very civilised. Even, dare one say it, somewhat friendly and subdued.
Perhaps it's because we're all a bit jaded by the breathless pace of international cricket and this just happens to be one of those down times. Perhaps it's because of the disappointing lack of local interest in what could be a dramatic, top-level contest — after all, in all serious theatre, atmosphere is a must.
Or perhaps it's just the way we Indians perceive the South African team — as a chillingly efficient machine, programmed to perform a certain way. But then, so are the Aussies. Then why is it that we don't look forward to beating the Proteas — at the moment rated as good as, or better than, the men from Oz --- with as much relish as we would a chance to dent Ponting's pride?
We want to beat the South Africans, that is certain. But we don't particularly want to beat them into brainless, bloody submission and then dance violently on the remnants of their collective pride. That's the difference. The answer, perhaps, lies in a last, almost-in-passing comment Smith made on Friday. “We've got everything to gain on this tour and India have everything to lose.” True enough. At the moment, they are the challengers, not India.
Despite their efficiency and undoubtedly great record at home and abroad, despite their coming close to beating India in a home series two years ago — India were saved by a Kanpur pitch Dale Steyn dubbed a 'bunsen-burner' — the Proteas somehow, have never seemed invincible — unlike the Aussies.
There's a hint of vulnerability about the South African strut, a slight insecurity that an Australian would never have shown, which gives us pause that they are more human, that the battle will be more on equal terms. However, India can't afford it to be. If India want to dominate the decade ahead like Australia did the one gone by, it all starts Saturday.
And while the eve has been quiet, perhaps the game itself will stir our souls.