Saturday dawned grey and gloomy, not the best thing on the eve of a terribly important one-day series but for India, there was one huge positive — the news that Virender Sehwag is actually superman in disguise and has recovered enough to likely play the first game against South Africa on Sunday.
But that news came later, well into the aforementioned day that began with showers. For those part of India’s cricketing caravan in Africa, this meant a series of frantic calls to the Indian and South African media managers and the information that the teams would not be practicing at the Wanderers, the venue of the series opener but at Centurion, about an hour’s drive from here.
The drive was equally rushed, the practice should have begun and having seen what can happen at practices (remember the Champions Trophy ticking off that the Indians received and Sehwag’s stitches at Benoni?), it is better to be there. Centurion, though, greets all comers with equally overcast skies and as you walk into the SuperSport Park, the skies rumble deafeningly and are split wide open by streaks of lightning. And then the news filters in that the Indians have changed their mind and will practice at the Wanderers after all, at the indoor nets, so that means a long drive back under leaden skies. Still, everyone stops a while to watch the South Africans, fielding against the grey backdrop under Jonty Rhodes’s expert eye.
Makhaya Ntini, who has put his disreputable past behind him to achieve iconic, nay, cult status among the black majority here, is there, chatting away in Zulu to a couple of strangers, greeting everyone with customary cheer, laughing, lounging, larger than life. He does his usual thing, waves, screams out something obviously not part of drawing room conversation, make a mock, crotch-grabbing gesture, indulgently flirts with a pretty young cherub.
It is on this man, in your face, confidence personified, that South Africa will largely depend to give them the early breaks, it is this man who India will look to see off to give themselves half a chance. If Ntini can be put off his stride early, it could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the game. For, like he appears to be, he is a confidence player, possibly easier to fluster than his more experienced pace partner, Shaun Pollock.
The huge problem for India would be that Sehwag, the most likely person to give them that devastating start, might be slightly wary if he does finally play — though amazingly, it actually looks like he might despite having stitches in his ring finger on the right hand only two days ago. “On his day, he can kill the bowling,” admitted South African skipper Graeme Smith on Saturday. True enough and India would be hoping that Sehwag, who batted at nets for a long while, with stitches, will be okay when they come off on Sunday morning.
It is a gamble and a calculated one. Rahul Dravid said he was “confident” Sehwag would play but as the rain prevented them from having an outdoor nets and Sehwag couldn’t see how he felt about fielding, a final call will be made around Sunday noon.
If he can’t, it would leave India heavily dependent on their own cult figure, Sachin Tendulkar, to combat South Africa at the start. Smith had remarked, “He (Sachin) has a great weight on his shoulders,” and that is also true but it (the weight of expectations) is something that has so become part of the Tendulkar persona over the years that perhaps, for the rest of the world, and rather unfairly to the batsman, it has ceased to be a concern.
Along with these two batsmen, India’s fortunes in this series will of course, depend on Dravid. The skipper’s exemplary batting display when all but he had failed in Benoni will be hung on to like a talisman by the Indian camp — for if Dravid can hang in there and get a bit of support from at least one other top bat, India could do better than expected in a series that no one really gives them a ghost of a chance in.
Everything is against them; their own record in South Africa, their discomfort on bouncy wickets, their collective form going into this game. They were seen doing some last minute business trying to get into frame on Saturday — dealing with a lot of short-pitched stuff, practicing the pull and cut, trying to stay on top of the ball but will they win? Heck, who knows? Let’s just say it would be a pleasant surprise if they do.