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India vs South Africa first Test: A play without rehearsal

Wednesday, 18 December 2013 - 6:45am IST | Place: Johannesburg | Agency: dna

Young, inexperienced Indian team takes on top-ranked South Africans in the first Test beginning today without as much as even a minute of match practice.

Come on, jog your memory. What are your recollections of the 2011-12 season? After the World Cup triumph, we believed that MS Dhoni could do no wrong. After all, he was the ‘King Midas’ of cricket. But fast forward to the English summer and that embarrassing whitewash stares at you.

Things only got worse. Another 4-0 loss beckoned, this time Down Under.

Among other things, Dhoni hates to live in the past. There’s no place for laurels or lows in that clutter-free mind of his. But whether he likes it or not, those eight consecutive Test defeats continue to hang over his head. Over the next fortnight, Dhoni must summon all the attributes that have made him the most successful Indian skipper of all time. Or else, he will hold the dubious distinction of having lost 10 overseas Tests in a row.

For a man who has achieved everything on offer, the two-match Test series against South Africa beginning on Wednesday at the Wanderers will pose enough and more challenges for Dhoni. 

The present team is younger, hungrier and does not carry excess baggage. More importantly, a majority of them have been hand-picked by Dhoni. He has seen them evolve as fabulous ODI players waiting to make it big in Tests. Zaheer Khan is the only senior in the squad, so to speak, and he’s clearly the country’s best pacer by a mile.

It would be a tad unfair to expect this lot to set the Test arena on fire –– especially in a country where India have won just twice in 15 attempts –– but the focal point is that they must strive to compete, if not win. If the just-concluded ODI series is anything to go by, then the visitors have a lot of work to do. Worse, they go into the Test on the back on a few practice sessions and not genuine match practice.

The batsmen are expected to face a test of fire from the likes of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, and the green-top (more like a ‘cow-bed’) on offer will make things awfully difficult.

But Dhoni is confident that his boys will hold their own. And he chose to put the onus on the bowlers.

“One of the most crucial things is to bowl well because to win Test matches. So I think it will be very important to bowl the right areas. We need to get used to the conditions really well and try to hit the top of off stump. If we start well with the ball, we will carry that confidence into the other departments.” In other words, ‘bowling captain’ Khan and his likely partners, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and R Ashwin, have a lot of work to do.

“Every series is a fresh start. There is no point bringing excess baggage,” Dhoni said, choosing to ignore both the overseas defeats as well as the six straight triumphs at home. “There are plenty of youngsters in the side who will get exposure by playing plenty of competitive cricket at the Test level.”

South Africa have made just one change to the side which thrashed Pakistan in Dubai. With Hashim Amla replacing Dean Elgar, the Proteas look as intimidating as any top-ranked side would. Dhoni refused to name his XI, but indications are Ajinkya Rahane will bat at No. 6 with Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma moving up a spot each.

South Africa: G Smith (C), H Amla, AB de Villiers (WK), JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, D Elgar, I Tahir, J Kallis, R Kleinveldt, M Morkel, A Petersen, R Peterson, V Philander, D Steyn,
T Tsolekile (WK);

India: MS Dhoni (C & WK), M Vijay, S Dhawan, C Pujara, V Kohli, R Sharma, A Rahane, R Ashwin, B Kumar, U Yadav, M Shami, R Jadeja, Z Khan, A Rayudu, W Saha (wk), I Sharma, P Ojha

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