zaheer khan

Indian Cricket on the Road to Somewhere

0-8. Never forget.

Over the course of two tours, to England and Australia, Indian fans were treated to soul crushing and legend shattering performances from the team, as the number 1 ranking was surrendered, and then the retirements of long-time servants of Indian cricket were hastened. Indian cricket was well and truly forced into the transitional phase, which it kept talking about for years, but never really took any steps towards it.

That is why, the series against New Zealand raised a lot of interest and expectations towards how India is going to plan ahead. With tough home series against England and Australia, and an overseas assignment against the current number 1 team to follow, the situation called for some bold and visionary thinking from the selectors to pick a squad keeping the future in mind.

Well, if you know anything about Indian cricket and its selectors, you know what was always the most likely thing to happen. Kris Srikkanth and gang opted for the safe route and picked pretty much the same squad which had been failing overseas, but could be trusted to deliver in home conditions. Retirements forced the hand of the selectors, allowing come-back opportunities for Che Pujara and Suresh Raina, but there seemed to be no tangible measures taken in response to the drubbing in two consecutive overseas tours.

On the basis of the two Tests against the Kiwis, most of the issues remain un-resolved. I’m going to take a look at some of them and give my ideas about how to tackle it.

The opening conundrum

When Gambhir and Sehwag notched a 50 run partnership in the second innings of the Bangalore test, it was their first in 12 innings. It is hard to believe that this is the same pair, who just a couple of years back, formed one of the best opening pairs in international cricket. They were instrumental in India’s rise to the top of the rankings, and it is not a surprise that India’s fall coincides with a decline in their performances. Of late, Gambhir seems to be more assured in the shorter formats than in Tests, and his dismissals mirror that fact. He keeps edging deliveries to the slip cordon while trying to run the ball down to third man, and for an opener that kind of misjudgment is career suicide. All the qualities which made him one of the best openers in Indian cricket history, seem to be in short supply and it doesn’t help that his partner is going through a similar crisis himself.

Sehwag has never been a conventional opener and his success to date has defied belief. He averages over 50, has two triple tons apart from several other big centuries, and gives rapid fire starts just about every time he gets into a groove – all this despite a very unorthodox batting style bordering on the very definition of risk. Most of the time, he gets out to a poor shot and immediately is excused, saying “that’s the way he plays”. Unfortunately, nowadays we are treated to short cameo knocks from Sehwag before he gifts his wicket away, and coupled with Gambhir’s inconsistency, his inability to play the big innings he is famous for, is starting to cause headaches for India at the top.

So what is the solution? Can we afford to drop either or both Gambhir and Sehwag? Should India stick with them, trusting and hoping, that the proven performers will shine against England and Australia?

Personally, if there was any time to drop either opener and blood new batsmen, it was the series against a low profile team like New Zealand. With England dropping in soon, it is unreasonable to expect a replacement to perform immediately against quality opposition, when under a lot of pressure. The next best step is to give the pair another go, against England and hope they regain their appetite for huge knocks. If it doesn’t work, it is time for the team to take a leap of faith and try new players, regardless of reputation. Pujara and Kohli are good examples of youngsters who have grabbed their opportunities to replace batsmen who were considered irreplaceable till recently, and there is no reason why the likes of Rahane or Mukund can’t do the same.

The middle-order blues

While two batsmen established themselves firmly in the plans for the upcoming contests, Sachin Tendulkar and Suresh Raina had a forgettable series against the Kiwis, despite looking good in patches. Tendulkar is the last of the old guard and while he may resist any overtures, his time is drawing to a close. It is a just a matter of, how he is going to leave the game – in a blaze of glorious run-scoring or a series of painful torturous innings. On the other hand, Raina is still trying unsuccessfully to convince everyone that he can handle Test cricket. These are two batsmen at different stages of their careers, but at a time when the team is going through a metamorphosis, the management has to decide whether they figure in their long term plans.

In the case for Tendulkar, his experience is invaluable considering the newly re-modeled middle order is still finding its feet. While the manner of his dismissals in the series indicate a slowing of reflexes, I have seen many a Tendulkar slump before an inevitable deluge of run scoring silences the critics. He is a proud cricketer who will be hurting from the whitewashes in England and Australia, and I wouldn’t put it past him to raise his game one last time against high quality opposition.

As for Raina, he’s got to go. The likes of Rahane, Badrinath and Tiwary will wonder what else they can do to get a place ahead of him, considering his inferior record in first class cricket. Despite a scratchy fifty in the first innings of the Bangalore Test, his dismissal in the second innings confirmed the fact that he does not have the temperament to be consistent in this format. If he continues to be in the XI, England and Australia are bound to feast on him. This should perhaps be the easiest decision to take for Dhoni, when the next series starts.

The captaincy question

While many agree that MS Dhoni is one of the finest skippers in international cricket when it comes to the short forms, the opinion is more divided when it comes to Tests. The arguments are mainly ‘he is too defensive’ and ‘he doesn’t deserve a place in the XI’. They have some merit, but are they really viable at this stage?

Yes, Dhoni was captain during the two disastrous tours, but would any other captain have made a difference? If your batsmen experience a collective loss in form and your bowlers cannot maintain a consistent line and length, it wouldn’t matter if you were Mike Brearley. Apart from that, there are no quality alternatives at this stage. Gambhir and Sehwag are not in the best of form, and Kohli is too raw. Instead, it would be wise to groom Kohli for the captaincy, so that there is a smooth transition at the appropriate time, at least when it comes to leadership. At the moment, Dhoni is still our best bet as he commands respect and more importantly, with his performances in this series, no one can ask questions of his place in the team…for now.

Whither the fast bowlers?

India has never been known for producing quality speed merchants, or for that matter any pace bowler who can compete with the best in the world. Despite that, India had two decent options this series in Zaheer Khan and Umesh Yadav. Thanks to the spinners, they didn’t really have to do much apart from taking the shine off the ball and occasionally coming on, to provide the spinners some respite after long spells. That is why it was disappointing to see their underwhelming performances, even in limited roles.

Zaheer Khan is in a steady decline at the moment. He is no more the bowler he was at his pomp, and at the moment, its his guile and experience which still warrants him a place in the side. It is up to the team management to use him wisely in the coming months, as contests against quality teams are lined up. Stop using him in ODIs and T20s; preserve him for the Tests. Use him to mentor the youngsters; and given the way, Yadav bowled in the series, he has his work cut out.

Umesh Yadav was one of the rare positives from the ill-fated tour down under, and much is expected from him. Unfortunately, his pace seems to have dropped off a little and he still has trouble with control. Given that Ishant Sharma faces the same issues and the remaining reserve of fast bowlers are even more inexperienced, there doesn’t seem to be any easy solution on hand.

This is where the role of bowling coach Joe Dawes is amplified. By this time next year, India may have to depend on a completely fresh pack of fast bowlers  and it is imperative that between now and then, the management identify who they think are going to stick around for a long time and prepare them for the long haul. If India are serious about retaining their number 1 ranking, they can ill afford to neglect their fast bowling resources.

To summarize,

  • Give Sehwag and Gambhir one more chance during the England series. If they continue to fail, bite the bullet and blood replacements for them.
  • Tendulkar’s presence is vital for the team till the South African tour to provide experience and guide the freshly re-modeled middle order. Raina has run out of chances, and it is time to try someone else.
  • MS Dhoni remains our best option when it comes to captaincy. Make Kohli the permanent vice-captain and groom him for leadership in the future.
  • Manage Zaheer wisely and build a good reserve of fast bowlers.

Indian cricket is notorious for its disregard to planning ahead and taking corrective measures. Here is hoping that there is someone in the Indian cricket hierarchy, who can look past the eye-pleasing win over New Zealand  and identify the short-comings. Then, hopefully we won’t need to experience anything as painful and harrowing as an 0-8 score line.

Never forget.

Advertisements

I have a dream – India’s tour of Australia

Four years ago, the Indian cricket team landed on the Australian shores led by one of the finest gentlemen in the game, with a world class bunch of batsmen and bowlers (Ok, thats stretching it a bit!) with one single mission on their minds: beat the hosts and win a series down under for the first time in their history.

Despite possessing the likes of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, MS Dhoni, Anil Kumble and Zaheer Khan (albeit, for one Test), the mission remained unfulfilled. The tour descended into acrimony, even as the visitors could only manage a solitary win at Perth. Many feared (Ok, just the Indians) that with the next Australian tour a good four years away, the Indian stalwarts would have retired, and the best chance of defeating Australia in their own backyard had just been screwed up.

Well, here we are four years on. How things have changed and yet remained so same! Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman are still here (like old creaking terminators, as Dravid put it), while the Aussie team is barely recognizable from that tour. It is safe to say that with all of the current problems plaguing the hosts, THIS could turn out to be the best chance for India to secure a historic series victory down under.

Yes, India has an aging middle order which will have to contend with a fiery combo of James Pattinson and Peter Siddle. Yes, they have a largely inexperienced bunch of bowlers consisting of one fragile world class seamer and an assortment of medium pacers who don’t trouble too many batsmen at domestic level either. Yes, they have two exciting spinners who will be playing on seam friendly tracks, far from the comforts of home-made turners against weaker opposition. And yes, for all of Australia’s troubles, they still are a bunch of tough nuts to crack, with the likes of Warner, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey, Siddle, Pattinson and Lyon around.

Still, as a famous man once said (in a completely different context), “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair”.

For, I have a dream.

I have a dream, that for the first time this year, Gautam Gambhir will score an international century.

I have a dream, that Virender Sehwag will carry forward good memories of his last test match at Melbourne; not to forget, his recent barn-storming innings against West Indies in the ODI series.

I have a dream that Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman will have one last victorious hurrah in a land, that at various stages in their careers, made them the batsmen they are now.

I have a dream that this series will be confirmation that Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma can take over when the big guns retire.

I have a dream that this series will be MS Dhoni’s proudest win as test skipper.

I have a dream that Ojha and Ashwin will continue to enhance their reputations in a country which hasn’t always been favorable to spinners; also, that they will make up for the supposedly missing ‘fire-in-belly’ due to Harbhajan Singh’s absence.

I have a dream that Zaheer Khan will last atleast two consecutive matches; and win the games for his country, while doing so.

Ditto for Ishant Sharma.

I have a dream that Umesh Yadav can match James Pattinson for pace and guile; and that Vinay Kumar and Mithun will be ready when another pace bowler eventually breaks down.

Most of all, I dream that it will be a fascinating contest between bat and ball, adorned with thrilling performances by seasoned veterans and passionate youngsters; After all, these are #testing times.

This is my hope, and my faith.

Pace is ace

So, after what seems like an eternity, India have put up a full strength side for arguably the most important Test series of the last two years. India won the series last time they toured under Dravid’s captaincy; but this English side under Flower and Strauss are a way more tougher side and are legitimate challengers for the top ranking. So it is pleasing to see that both sides will be playing pretty much their first choice XI, in what promises to be an appetizing series for connoisseurs of good ‘ole Test cricket.

For once, India will not be the only side boasting of a world class middle order in bilateral series involving them. Trott, Pietersen and Bell will be tough to get past with Morgan and Prior providing more headaches lower down the order. Of course, they will have the small matter of dealing with Cook’s ominous Test form.

That is why I feel that this series will be decided by the mini-battle between the Indian seamers and the English batsmen. While the Indian batsmen will be challenged to the extreme by Anderson, Tremlett and Swann, the English batsmen will feel more confident of dealing with the Indian bowlers. Apart from Zaheer Khan, no other bowler is going to give them sleepless nights. So it will be imperative for the support bowlers to raise their game during this tour.

It is safe to assume that India will play 3 seamers and a lone specialist spinner in Harbhajan. It is still safer to assume that Harbhajan the bowler is not going to be much of a factor considering the fact that the English batsmen get to practice against Swann in the nets. So, the burden lies on Zak and co, to get among the wickets. Here is a look at the men who have to make a difference for India to emerge victorious.

Zaheer Khan is India’s lone world class pace bowler. One of the major reasons for India’s victory in the last tour to England. He might not be express pace but more than makes up for it with his skill and experience. This time around, he will have to guide his younger colleagues to form a potent attack. His contests with Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott will prove to be some of the most critical moments in the series.

Shantakumaran Sreesanth was a supporting act to Zaheer and RP Singh on the last tour, but this time he will have to step up to share the burden with Zaheer. No one doubts his talent and drive, but it is his temperament that lets him down most of the time. If he can keep himself under check and churn out spells like the ones he produces in South Africa, he will be one helluva weapon for India.

Munaf Patel is an enigma when it comes to Test cricket. In ODIs, he is a parsimonious bowler who manages to prise wickets at crucial junctures while keeping the run rate down. In Tests though, batsmen are more than content to just play him out, nullifying his effectiveness. It is hard to see him getting a game until one of the other pace bowlers get injured or have a drastic dip in form.

When Ishant Sharma bowled THAT spell to Ricky Ponting, it was as if Indian cricket had been blessed with that rare gift: a fast bowler who could hustle the best batsmen in the world. Since then, Sharma has seen both extremes of the success scale, and is currently in a upward swing. He has been the most impressive fast bowler for India in the series against West Indies and will be expected to carry his form to the England series. It will be fitting if he can make a good impression in a country where he got his first call up to the national team.

Praveen Kumar has been a surprise package in the series against West Indies. They said that he is primarily a short format bowler, that he can’t bowl with an old ball; still he has proved to be more than a handful, even in unhelpful conditions. England will seem like heaven, considering that pitches there are tailor-made for bowlers like him. He might not be an automatic pick in the XI, but if given a chance, will prove to be an effective option for India.

So, there it is. For all of India’s traditional strength in spin, it could well turn out to be quality pace bowling which could win them a closely fought series. This is possibly India’s top 5 pace bowlers and if they can’t do the trick, I doubt anyone else can.

 

A Date with Destiny at Mumbai – India are World Champions

Many years ago, a friend asked me why I spent so much time obsessing over a game which did not directly benefit me. To use his phrase, it did not ‘put food on the table’. In fact, it affected my studies, tested relationships with close ones and on a broader spectrum, decreased an entire nation’s productivity. This game had the ability to influence the mood of a country and yet, at the end of the day, apart from benefiting those involved in the game directly, it would not change the common man’s status for better or worse. So, why then care so much about this sport, or any sport for that matter?

April 2, 2011.

These are the moments why they matter….why we care….why entire nations can be lifted by sporting deeds performed by a few capable individuals. These are the moments why you can set your problems aside for a while and immerse yourself in a pastime which can give you as much joy, as it can give you heartbreak. These are the moments why sports exist.

The winning moment..

The men who won us the World Cup...

19 years...worth the wait...

 

The man behind the scenes..

The future...

The man who made it all possible...

 

Appreciation for an outgoing legend....

History making 15

A man who deserved to be in a World Cup winning team..

This is how much it matters to people on the street..

...in the streets of Delhi..

..Mumbai..

..and in Kolkata

 

Check out the final unforgettable moments…

So, there it is….moments to cherish for the Indians who were born after 1983 and never experienced the joy of winning the World Cup. For once, TV channels will stop showing clips of Amarnath’s last wicket in the 1983 final and replace it with Dhoni’s winning shot!

Once again, congratulations to Team India for a performance worthy of champions through the last few weeks; and to Sri Lanka and their magnificent cricketers for providing a tough fight. Not to forget – Ganguly, Kumble, Dravid, John Wright – who kickstarted the revival, and to Kirsten, Simons, Upton and the rest of the support staff for ensuring everything worked smoothly in the background.

Let the party continue!

Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision. —Muhammad Ali

People don’t play sports because its fun. Ask any athlete, most of them hate it, but they couldn’t imagine their life with out it. Its part of them, the love/hate relationship. Its what they live for. They live for the practices, parties, cheers, long bus rides, invitationals, countless pairs of different types of shoes, water, Gatorade, & coaches you hate but appreciate. They live for the way it feels when they beat the other team, and knowing those two extra sprints they ran in practice were worth it. They live for the way they become a family with their team, they live for the countless songs they sing in their head while training all those hours. They live for the competition, they live for the friends, the practices, the memories, the pain, its who they are. It’s who we are. —Unknown

The Cup has come home!

All pictures are courtesy of Cricinfo.

India vs England – Images of an Epic encounter

A result the game deserved!

100 overs. 676 runs. 18 wickets. 2 brilliant centuries. 1 five-wicket haul. 4th tie in World Cup history and the 3rd involving India. These are all statistics which will go down in the record books, but they will never be able to convey the intense drama which began with the first ball edge from Sehwag’s blade and ended with a frantical single by Swann and Shahzad off the last ball of the match. In between these two balls, an epic tussle between two top teams took place – both teams trading punches throughout the game, Tendulkar’s masterclass overshadowed by Strauss’ captain’s knock, Bresnan’s brilliant death over bowling matched by Zaheer’s devastating powerplay spell, England’s lower order hitting sixes on demand while the Indian fielding was uncharacteristically sharp in the dying stages of the game. Already, many are calling it as one of the finest ODIs in history, let alone World Cup history. Enough match reports and analysis will be written about in the next couple of days. So I will just stick to images from the classic, which was the perfect advertisement for One Day International cricket. Enjoy!

'The last World Cup match held in Bangalore was a classic between India and Pakistan. Wonder how today is gonna be'

'Hey Stumpy, should I choose to bat or to bowl?'

'Alright..Lets get the party started!'

'47th century. 2nd against England in 9 years...wait..what??'

'This is Jimmy's first wicket in India since 2006; Looks like he is done for the rest of the World Cup, then'

 

'Sorry Raina..you have to wait a bit longer to break into the team, now'

'I hope you picked me in your fantasy XI, Swanny!'

'You gotta be kidding me, KP...you couldn't even wait for Yuvi to come on, could you?''

'Haha...they said that I shouldn't figure in the World Cup..2 matches in, I'm the leading run scorer..who's the muppet now?'

'This is T for terrible...and you wonder why we aren't big fans of the UDRS'

'Alright, lets take the powerplay..whats the worst that could happen, right?'

'I'm back!!!'

'Ah..drat..I should have trusted my patented nudges instead'

'This ain't over till I say it is'

'Watch his hands, Aj...He might just slap you!'

'Don't look now...Sehwag doesn't look pleased!'

Ireland will be the next opponent for both teams; England play them on the 2nd, while India take them on in a week’s time. Still, questions remain over both team’s bowling departments. How soon they can remedy that, will determine how far they will progress in the tournament.

 

 

 

All I want for Christmas – a cricket-related wishlist

Its Christmas time, and what better way of spending time, than watching some high quality cricket, around the clock, and from around the world. First, of course there is the Ashes, with the possibility of England retaining the Ashes well before the New Year; then there, is the India-SA clash, with both teams itching to prove that they are the better team. We also have a Pak-NZ clash down under, where two teams who have had tumultuous years will be desperate to start the new year well. Here, then, is my Christmas wish-list:

The Ashes

  • For Australia to display the same performance they did at Perth.
  • For England to show that their performance in the same match was just a matter of one bad game.
  • For Watson to finally score a century (hey, I’m in the Christmas spirit!)
  • For Ponting to display some of his old batting brilliance.
  • For Beer to play, so that we can all be subjected to some creative, and some horrible, puns.
  • For Swann to showcase a masterclass of spin.
  • For the English bowling to prove that they don’t need Broad again (wishful thinking, really)
  • Finally, for Australia to lose in a nail-biting finish.

India-South Africa

  • For the Boxing day test, to be a contest worthy of a clash between the top two teams in the world.
  • For more bowler-friendly conditions for the two teams.
  • For India to show some spunk in the batting, in tough conditions.
  • For the Indian bowlers to jog their memory, and try to remember how to take wickets.
  • For Harbhajan to forget his batting and concentrate more on his bowling.
  • For Zaheer to stay fit for the next 3 months at the least.
  • For the likes of Amla, Kallis, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman to display some vintage Test batting.
  • For Paul Harris to be smashed out of the attack.
  • Finally, for India to win the Test, so that the 3rd Test will be worth watching.

Pakistan-NZ

  • For the series to go ahead without one controversy, atleast!

Merry Christmas, everybody, and have a joyful new year!!

India vs South Africa – Clash of the Titans

Finally, the much awaited non-Ashes test series of the year, is upon us. The No. 1 side takes on the No. 2 side, in a 3 test series, which will confirm if India has finally learned to crack the code in hostile environs. They are led by the capable MS Dhoni, under whom they have not lost a test series in two years, and are packed with world class batsmen and competitive bowlers. Their ground fielding is way behind some of the other teams, but importantly, they don’t drop too many catches. One of the biggest advantages they have going into the series, is the presence of Gary Kirsten and Eric Simons. Their local experience coupled with the extensive preparation they have put in, in the lead-up to the series, could prove to be the tipping point for India. Add to this, the fact that, this is the best Indian team to tour South Africa, ever. If they cannot win the series this time, they might as well forget winning here again for a while, considering that their big three (Sachin, Dravid, Laxman) would be playing in their last tour here.

As for South Africa, they will be having the odds on their side, given their balance and knowledge of the conditions. Any team, which has Steyn and Morkel marking their run-ups at the start of the opposition’s innings, will consider themselves favorites on fast, bouncy pitches. Their spin option is not threatening, but on these grounds, against Indian batsmen, they wouldn’t matter anyway. They have a powerful batting line-up, which can rival India, in terms of racking up big scores. Smith, Amla, Kallis and De Villiers are in no way inferior to Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman. One area, where they are miles ahead of India, is their fielding; and in a tight contest, it could tilt the series in their favor.

Without further ado, here is player-by-player look:

INDIA (best XI)

Gautam Gambhir: Its been a long time, since India have toured South Africa, with a stable opening combination; This time around, they have, perhaps the best Indian openers since Gavaskar. It might be Gambhir’s first test tour of South Africa; but he is a driven cricketer, who has just returned to form, and his partnership with Sehwag will be an interesting plot-line in this series.

Virender Sehwag: He burst into the test scene, with a dazzling debut ton at Bloemfontein in 2001, against the likes of Pollock, Hayward and Ntini. Since then, his average in South Africa is a measly 26.44, compared to an ‘away’ average of 50.67. Needless to say, he will be bursting to set some records straight. He forms one half of the world’s most feared opening partnership, but his wicket will be the most cherished in a class line-up. Recently, he has combined an important trait to his run-away stroke-play: patience. His contest with Steyn and Morkel will be a treat to savor.

Rahul Dravid: He might be not be the same batsman he was four years ago; but, when India tour abroad, there is no better player to turn to. Like other batsmen in the illustrious line-up, his record in South Africa is a glaring inconsistency with the remainder of his ‘away’ stats. He struck a semblance of form in the recent series against New Zealand, but no doubt, Steyn and co, will try to re-inject some old misgivings. All said and done, this is his last opportunity to play a defining role in what could turn out to be India’s finest series win in years.

Sachin Tendulkar: He is playing so well this year, that, when he failed to register a century in the series against the Kiwis, it was a shock to all. He is one ton away, from a record setting 50 centuries in tests, but his mind will be on bigger things. He leads one of the strongest batting line-ups in recent memory and he will know that there is no better chance to beat South Africa in their own den. He averages a respectable 39.76 in SA from 12 matches, with an unforgettable 169 as his highest score. If he can improve on these stats, expect India to be dominant in the batting stakes, Steyn or no Steyn.

VVS Laxman: He has been needed a lot in the last few series, and he has not disappointed. One of the most under-rated batsmen of his generation, he will relish the challenge SA will throw at him. Even if India experience some top order blues, they know that they can rely on Laxman to bail them out. The biggest task for South Africa will be to ensure that he does not mistake them for Australia.

Suresh Raina: Possibly the only weak link in the batting, it is a no-brainer that the Saffers will target him with plenty of bouncers. After a dream start to his test career, his form has tapered off, and SA will consider him ripe for the picking; but there is no doubt, that he is the most talented of the young bunch. Kirsten has worked with him a lot on his batting, and it remains to be seen, if he has learnt his lessons. For inspiration, he needs not look further than fellow southpaw, Alastair Cook, who is changing notions about his batting, in Australia.

MS Dhoni: Captain Extraordinaire. He has a brilliant opportunity to go into the record books, as the first Indian skipper to lead his team to a victory in South Africa. While his keeping has always been steady, his batting form is iffy. He did score an important 98 in his most recent innings, but India will need more of that, to back up Laxman and lead the lower order, if the situation arises. Many critics have pointed out, that Dhoni’s good record is more due to luck, than anything else; but as the man himself said, if his luck is helping India win, then so be it.

Harbhajan Singh: Of late, he has come up with an interesting idea. If he can’t help India with the ball, he will try to win games with his bat. It is all well and endearing, but the focus will be rightly on his bowling. In a land renowned for its spinners, he is the leading tweaker, who hasn’t really managed to penetrate line-ups recently. While talk over his bowling form riles him up, he needs to calm down and realize that India needs him to be at his best against a powerful set of batsmen. Expect the likes of Kallis and De Villiers to target him and disrupt his rhythm. How he responds, will be crucial to Indian hopes of containing any severe damage.

Zaheer Khan: India’s most important bowler is under a fitness cloud right now. It would be an understatement to say, that in his absence, India will find getting 20 SA wickets, that much harder. So, expect the physios to be putting some extra time with him. At the least, India will hope that he can play, so that he can target his favorite bunny’s wrists.

Ishant Sharma: Will be a player worth watching this series. While South Africa has faced him before, it will be a different matter, when they come up against him, on their own pitches. If they prepare bouncy tracks for the benefit of Steyn and Morkel, they better be prepared for some roughing up by Sharma. After months of toiling on subcontinental pitches, he will be licking his lips at the prospect of bowling on lively pitches. If he can maintain control and reduce his no-balls, he will turn out to be a match winner for India.

S Sreesanth: Sreesanth and South Africa will always be remembered for his famous antics after hitting Nel for a six in India’s last tour here. While those might or might not be repeated, India will hope that his bowling in that series will be reprised this time as well. There were some promising signs in the recent series against New Zealand, and if he along with Sharma, can support Zaheer Khan ably, expect South Africa to reconsider their pitch preparations.

SOUTH AFRICA (Best XI)

Graeme Smith: One of the best openers in international cricket, Smith (fitness permitting) will be a tough nut to dislodge once he gets going. Interestingly, he has never scored a century against India in 10 matches, falling to Zaheer and Sreesanth 4 times each. What better chance to set the record straight, than in a contest between the top two teams in international cricket, at home.

Alviro Petersen: After scoring a debut century against India at Eden gardens, Petersen has had a steady career. While there are no immediate concerns, this is an ideal opportunity for him to establish his position in the team. India have been known to be generous to batsmen seeking to make it big on the international stage, and Petersen will be hoping that he will be the beneficiary of India’s largesse.

Hashim Amla: It remains to be seen, how much Amla’s arm injury will affect his form. Just as well – A fully fit and firing Amla will be one of the biggest threats to India’s fortunes. Blessed with the calmness and patience of a monk, he has reeled off several hundreds in the past year. Only time will tell, if he will become a great; but for now, he is doing a damn impressive job and the Saffers will be hoping that he will continue to display the run-scoring appetite he did, in their last series against India.

J Kallis: South Africa’s own Tendulkar. When was the last time this man was out of form, anyway? Along with Amla and De Villiers, he forms one of the most strongest middle orders in the game. His duel with Harbhajan will be worth watching, and expect a lot of words to be exchanged between the two. Add to this, his catching at slips and breakthroughs with the ball – as always, he could prove to be India’s nemesis.

AB De Villiers: The next big superstar of international cricket. Expect him to be breaking a few records this series. He is fresh off a mammoth unbeaten 278 against Pakistan; and at home against the likes of Harbhajan and Sreesanth, he will fancy his chances. If India don’t get him out early, they will be chasing the leather on most days of this tour.

Ashwell Prince: A man whose career mirrors Laxman in more ways than one. Perennially, on the verge of being dropped, it is easy to forget that he is a former skipper of the national team. He tried his hand at opening, to stay in the team, but has rightfully returned to the middle order. He faces competition from Duminy for his spot, and only consistent big scores will make the number 6 slot, his own. Despite having a poor record against India overall, his average shoots up to 61 against India at home. So, he has atleast one thing going for him.

Mark Boucher: His best days might be behind him, but Boucher is the man you need, when you’re in a scrap with the best team. He will relish the challenge of leading the lower order, and his safe keeping will be a source of comfort to the bowlers. Expect his palms to take a lot of pounding, this series.

Paul Harris: While it is easy to rubbish Harris’ performances at the top level, one look at the current state of Australian spin bowling, will show how much worth he is to the SA side. He runs into a line-up, which has demolished better spinners, and his average of almost 50 against them, confirms the non-existence of a threat. He will be expected to perform a containing role, allowing the lines of Steyn and Morkel to run amok.

Dale Steyn: India’s biggest threat to a landmark series win. There is a reason, why there is a lot of talk of Steyn in the lead-up to the series. While his overall bowling average is 23.77 with a SR of 40.4, against India, it drops to 20 and 36.3 respectively. India will not forget his devastating spell at Nagpur in a hurry and their preparations so far, mirror the respect they have for Steyn’s capabilities. His contest with Sehwag will prove to be the biggest of all mini-clashes in this series.

Morne Morkel: If Sehwag and Gambhir form the toughest opening partnership in international cricket, Steyn and Morkel form the most lethal new ball pair going around. While his bowling stats against India are not very impressive, sheer pace and bounce (that old nemesis of Indian batting) will prove to be a handful on home pitches.

L Tsotsobe: He will be the most inexperienced bowler among the two teams, and India will hope they can get some respite from Steyn and Morkel through him. Don’t take him lightly though. With good left arm swing, complementing the fiery pace of the new ball bowlers, he could yet prove to a wild card. Afridi and Pakistan found out the hard way.

All in all, it promises to be a riveting series. At least, it will prove to be more of a contest than the one taking place down under!