South Africa v India - first Test, Centurion Park, 16th-20th December, 08:30 GMT
India will look to answer the question of their ability to sustain their number one Test ranking when they play South Africa in the first Test at Centurion Super Sports Park. Both sides are potent with good mix of youngsters and experienced campaigners.
In a three-match series, the performance in the first Test often sets the momentum for the side to have an advantage. Four years back, India won the first Test at Johannesburg but squandered the series 2-1 with successive defeats in Durban and Cape Town.
Venue: The Super Sport Park at Centurion is the home of the Titans franchise in South Africa's domestic competitions. Traditionally a seamer’s paradise, the pitch in recent times has shown assistance to slow bowlers. The head groundsman Hilbert Smith indicated that the track would last for five days with initial assistance to the faster men.
Also, with a forecast for thundershowers on the opening day, there are stoppages in store. The possibility of scattered thunderstorms is predicted on the final day of the Test.
India beat New Zealand 1-0 in the recently concluded series at home. But they will find conditions vastly different in South Africa, where there is assistance for bowlers. India’s success will hinge on the combination of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir to give them brisk starts in a bid to get competitive totals.
The Indian middle order comprising Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman is arguably the best in the world with 96 hundreds amongst them. Barring Suresh Raina, all other batsman in the top order have runs under their belt coming into this Test series.
India seem to have got their bowling unit right to take 20 wickets. The new cherry is likely to be shared between Shanthakumaran Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan (who is being monitored closely with a possible hamstring injury). If Zaheer does not play there will be a tussle between unheralded Umesh Yadav and Jaydev Unadkat, with Ishant Sharma the third seamer. Harbhajan Singh will be the lone tweaker.
The Indians did their best to get acclimatised to the conditions in South Africa with extra time spent at coach Gary Kirsten’s cricket academy in Cape Town in South Africa in the absence of any tour games.
This is the first time India are playing outside the subcontinent after a staple diet of home series which contributed mostly towards their rise up the ICC Test rankings. The famed Indian batting line up has lots to prove. Only VVS Laxman averages 41 with the bat while Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar have 33.60 and 39.76 as their averages respectively in South Africa.
Zaheer Khan’s hamstring injury has given the Indian think tank anxious moments. He is pivotal with the new ball snaring early wickets and his experience invaluable in South African conditions.
Watch out for:
Sreesanth: The Kerala express has found his rhythm after a successful comeback into the Test team. He was instrumental in helping India win their first Test match last time in South Africa , with figures of five for 40.
Virender Sehwag: He hit a hundred on debut in Bloemfontein in 2001 and since then has earned the reputation of the most dangerous Test batsman in the world. He would be keen to address his poor outing last time where he aggregated 89 runs in six outings to the batting crease.
Rahul Dravid: Though not at his very best Rahul Dravid still knows how to score runs and the calls for his head to give way to younger crop of players will be added motivation to set the record straight. He along with Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman has vast experience of playing in South African.
South Africa's record at home is impeccable, with only five series loses since their entry to Test cricket in 1992. Armed with a star-studded batting line up, the side boasts of burly all-rounder Jacques Kallis batting at number three and performer of the series, Ashwell Prince, who scored 361 runs last time India toured South Africa.
South Africa will be buoyed with the return of their skipper Graeme Smith after the hand injury sustained in the series against Pakistan.
The alacrity and agility in the fielding department will give the Proteas edge over the Indians and it just might be the difference between the two sides quite evenly matched on the other two fronts.
Worry Zone: The South Africans struggled to dismiss the opposition batsman twice in the recent series against a weak Pakistan line-up. Against a strong Indian batting outfit, they might have to sweat harder to get a result in their favour. The Proteas managed 19 wickets against England last year without Dale Steyn, on a wicket which became slower and slower throughout the match, but failed to seal the result in their favour.
Watch out for:
AB De Villiers: After a dismal start to the season in the home series against England where he struggled to go past a fifty earlier this year in the three Test match series, the numbers for AB De Villiers are outstanding so far having notched 834 runs at a magnificent average of 83.
Dale Steyn: South Africa‘s lethal weapon averages 18.66 with the ball at Centurion. He singled out the Indian opening combination of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir for special attention before the series and seems to have devised a plan for the prolific pair.
Hashim Amla: Hashim Amla has a hit a purple patch with 1060 runs already at an outstanding average of 81 this year with a career best 253 earlier this year at Nagpur against the Indians.He will be difficult to dismantle once set.
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