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Status symbol: Stage set to test the best

India begin series with eye on consolidating their No 1 ranking in Test cricket; injured Zaheer all but ruled out. Subhash Rajta reports. Graphics: SA, the final frontier | SWOT analysis | Match reckoner

cricket Updated: Dec 16, 2010 11:58 IST
Subhash Rajta
Subhash Rajta
Hindustan Times

The build-up to the series that would be fiercely fought has been rather warm and friendly. There has been no chest thumping, verbal sparring, mind games or antics as is mostly witnessed in a high profile contest. Instead, the teams have shown remarkable respect and admiration for each other.

On Wednesday, however, came the first indication the honeymoon period is over. Graeme Smith, the South Africa skipper, fired the first salvo on the eve of what's likely going to be a rain-affected first Test at Centurion from Thursday.

"To be No.1 means you have to be consistently performing around the world. As much as you want to be strong at home, you want to be strong away from home too, and that pressure is on India," said Smith, hinting India need to win to justify their top ranking.

How India handle that pressure remains to be seen. But pace spearhead Zaheer Khan was all but ruled out of the first Test because of a hamstring injury, putting the Indian camp and bowling attack under tremendous stress. The focus would now be on S Sreesnath and Ishant Sharma to deliver on what should be a helpful wicket for seamers.

A depleted bowling attack would mean batsmen too will have to share additional responsibilities. The key, of course, is going to be the start openers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir give to the team. If they manage to counter the initial onslaught of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, it would make life much easier for the middle order batsmen.

India are banking on Sehwag to fire but Smith doubted that. "Sehwag has had great success against us in the sub-continent, but he has some demons to exorcise here. He didn't have a very successful outing last time here and even slipped down to No 7 in one of the Tests," he said.

However, Smith appeared reasonably happy with his side. He has recovered from a fractured finger and Hashim Amla is also fit. The top and middle order comprising Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villers is in prime form.

The toss could be critical. "The wicket looks quite damp. So the toss would become vital as there would be lot of assistance for the quick bowlers initially. The team winning the toss here would start as 60:40 favourites," said Dhoni.

Given Dhoni's luck with toss, the team will be praying he gets it right this time.

First Published: Dec 16, 2010 00:06 IST