On the eve of the first Test at the Wanderers bullring, the scoreboard displayed Graeme Smith’s record number of Tests as skipper for South Africa, 103. A bit later it showed the number for MS Dhoni, which at 49 is joint highest for India yet less than half that of Smith.
More striking were the names of Jacques Kallis and Sachin Tendulkar, the two top run-getters for their sides against the other. While Kallis is still around for the Proteas, Tendulkar has just retired.
It summed up the two teams ahead of the series. South Africa are experienced and settled at home while India are largely young and untested abroad.
The confidence that runs through the Proteas ranks was evident at Graeme Smith’s interaction with the media. There were quite a few questions pertaining to the coming Australia tour meaning their mind is already on that. It could be dangerous but it reflects the buoyancy within the camp and what they are thinking of this India team despite their charitable words. With Dhoni though, the queries related to this Test, chances and the problems.
Bowling the key
The contrasting moods that the interactions threw up too gave away a bit. A couple of young fans watching India practice from the grass banks put it rather bluntly, “The game’s going to finish within three days.” Thankfully, the India players were at a distance.
Despite India’s concerns about batting in the one-dayers, MS Dhoni is not that worried. Practically, it has been just two matches going into this tour for them and that’s a very short period to write off a batting line-up. To him, it’s the bowling that is the key area.
“It is crucial how the bowlers bowl and whether they bowl in the right areas,” he said. “It is important to take 20 wickets if we want to win the Test match.”
South Africa and Highveld Lions paceman, Chris Morris, who plays for Dhoni’s Chennai Super Kings in the IPL, stresses the need to adjust length on his home ground. “There, you can be a bit short to get some bounce but here you got to pitch it up to the South Africa batsmen as the pitch will already have bounce,” he says before adding that Ishant Sharma becomes important here. “He has that height. That’s why he was able to succeed at Centurion, which is a similar track.”
Ishant was first in, practicing at the wicket adjacent to the playing surface and was soon joined by Zaheer. What worked magic for India on the last tour, though they didn’t play at the Wanderers, were Sachin Tendulkar and S Sreesanth.
In fact, when they won at the Wanderers in 2006, it was Sreesanth who ran through the South Africa batting. Tendulkar has retired and Sreesanth is banned for life over spot-fixing. Who will step into their shoes is the big question?
Taking Sachin’s slot
Dhoni was asked about who will bat at No. 4. Knowing that he is the most experienced and had looked the best in the ODIs, he could have been an option.
But he cleared all speculation saying his role in the order remains unchanged what with Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and probably Ajinkya Rahane around. Barry Richards, the former South Africa opener, says the top-order hasn’t left anything for Dhoni. “Yes, he is a player with impact. But the top hasn’t done anything to let him have that impact.”
South Africa expect Virat to bat at No. 4. That was clear from what Morne Morkel had said on Monday but Dhoni is keeping it under the wraps. “We still haven’t decided,” he said.
The playing XI too is undecided, unlike South Africa. But it requires to be seen if there is anything that would help spring a surprise on the hosts.