Preview: South Africa v India - The Real 'Test' Begins

Zaheer Khan
Can Zaheer Khan (right) help India challenge South Africa in their two-Test series
©REUTERS / Action Images

The day is finally upon Indian fans when the realisation will dawn that Sachin Tendulkar is now a former cricketer. When the second wicket falls in the first Indian innings at the Wanderers, in the first Test versus South Africa starting Wednesday, it will not be the immediately recognisable from afar Master Blaster walking in.

This match isn’t taking place in India, so it will be tough to measure the silence as the new number four takes guard. For, gone will be the days when the fall of the second wicket was cheered.

A new chapter will begin in Indian cricket history, for the man who enriched our lives for nearly 25 years, will no longer come out to bat.

Indian cricket will truly move on in that instant, and whoever comes out at number four to carry on his golden legacy remains to be seen. In his inimitable style, Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni asked gathered journalists, at the pre-match press conference, to "wait and watch!"

In all probability though, it will be Virat Kohli who will move one spot up from his number five position in the batting order. It is only logical given that he has been India’s best batsman across all formats for the last two seasons.

And what adds certainty to his growing stature is the way the South Africans have attacked him even since he has landed in this country. This will be a most intriguing battle and indeed a special coming-of-age series for this young batsman.

There is one other question mark staring in the face of skipper Dhoni. And it should be a tougher choice than sending Kohli out to 'replace' Tendulkar. It is the team combination conundrum and whether he should play seven batsmen or five bowlers in his playing eleven.

India enjoyed much success against Australia in playing five bowlers, winning the series 4-0 in March. But those were tough sub-continental conditions where an extra bowler was more useful than an extra batsman.

Going in with five bowlers, with Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin sharing the load of the seventh batsman will be too tough an ask for the Indian top order in South Africa.

The Indian batsmen are in half-baked form, going by their two submissions in the ODIs at Johannesburg and Durban. They haven’t had a competitive outing since then as the third ODI in Centurion was washed out when it was their turn to bat and then the two-day practice match at Benoni was abandoned without a ball being bowled, owing to a wet outfield.

The latter one was a big loss to the Indian team, because even though they had two days of open nets at Benoni, batting and bowling competitively gives you that extra edge. This lack of practice, and form therein, could be the reason why Dhoni chooses to go in with seven batsmen and four bowlers.

Anything else will be too big a risk on the bouncy wicket at the Wanderers, where the pace of Dale Steyn and company rattled India in their opening game of this tour.

The Indian bowling has progressed as the tour has proceeded. After the hiding they received in the first ODI, they recovered well enough in Durban and Centurion. It has been a learning curve for them and unlike the batsmen they have made good use of the opportunities that have come by.

Now, they will have an added bonus, in the comeback of Zaheer Khan after one year. The left-arm speedster is a veteran of 88 Tests and has a plethora of experience, bringing something to the bowling attack that is missing in the batting line-up after Tendulkar’s departure from the scene.

He knows how to swing the ball at good pace, has been part of the two Test wins India recorded here in 2006 and 2010, and will add much needed bite to the attack, leading this inexperienced bunch in helpful conditions.

Most of all, Zaheer has Proteas' Test captain and opener Graeme Smith’s number, having dismissed him six times in nine matches. If he can provide a great start to the Indian team on the morning of the first Test, it could just be the much-needed boost they are looking for.

The hosts don’t want a slow start against India. They believe they can deal with any situation that they are faced with such is the confidence emanating from the world’s best Test team at the moment.

They were sluggish against Pakistan in their last Test series in the Middle East and that cost them a loss in the first match, leaving a lot to do in the second. They drew level there, but will want to avoid a similar scenario, knowing full well that India have the experience of winning both in Johannesburg (2006) and in Durban (2010).

© Cricket World 2013

Fixtures & Results

5th December: 1st ODI, Johannesburg
RSA 358-4 beat IND 217 by 141 runs
8th December: 2nd ODI, Durban
RSA 280-6 beat IND 146 by 134 runs
11th December: 3rd ODI, Centurion
RSA 301-8 v IND - no result, rain
18th-22nd December: 1st Test, Johannesburg
IND 280 & 421 drew with RSA 244 & 450-7
26th-30th December: 2nd Test, Durban
RSA 500 & 59-0 beat IND 334 & 223 by 10 wickets