We are just a week away from India’s first test against South Africa at Centurion and Dhoni is about to face his biggest challenge as a captain. Since he took over as the Indian skipper in 2008, he has been only on three overseas tours and two of them have been in the subcontinent. Whatever the world says, Dhoni does have an impressive resume as a captain. He hasn’t lost a test series and has lost very few games as a captain of the Indian team.
India does not have any practice game ahead of the first test which is a worry but the BCCI did the right thing by sending the test specialists ahead of the schedule to get the feel of the conditions. The Indian coach Gary Kirsten and the bowling coach Eric Simmons being South Africans might be the trump cards India need. Their combined knowledge of the conditions there might help the Indian bowlers and the batsmen to prepare for the South African challenge. So does India realistically have a chance to topple South Africa in their home turf? I think they do.
When India visited South Africa in 2006 they were expected to be rolled over and after a 4-0 drubbing in the ODI series it did not seem otherwise. India on the contrary rolled over the hosts in the first test and South Africa had to dig deep to come out of that hole. South Africa finally won the series 2-1 and if not for the poor batting on the 4th day of the final test, the result would have been otherwise. That series showed that India can compete on those pitches and looking at the current team they can in fact do more than just compete this time. The biggest advantage for the visitors this time is their pace attack. In 2006 it was just Zaheer and Sreesanth, the third pace option (VRV Singh) wasn’t that effective which was a huge setback with the lack of all round option in the team. This time though we have three in form pacers in the squad, Sreesanth and Zaheer are back with Ishant as the third seamer.
If the tracks are pace friendly these three can trouble any batting team. Ishant bowling brilliantly against New Zealand in the third test should give the Indian team management loads of confidence ahead of the much important series. The biggest worry for Dhoni though will be the spinners. Harbajan’s form with the ball will be a huge worry for the team management and he bowling well in tandem with the pacers for me will decide the series. I am not sure if Ojha will get any chances in the series but he did not look that threatening either in the home series against the Kiwis. Even though the SA series is all about the fast men, spinners are equally important as well to keep the pressure up.
The Indian batting though hasn’t changed that much since the 2006 tour. The core of the team still remains with Sehwag, Sachin, Laxman and Dravid still in the team with the welcome additions of Ghambir and Raina/Pujara. The Ghambir/Sehwag opening combination will be very important for the team against the South African new ball pair of Steyn and Morkel. I am not sure who their third pacer would be but the new ball bowlers from the home team will attack the Indian openers. India has loads of experience at 3, 4 and 5 followed by the edgy Raina at number 6.
Sourav Ganguly did a brilliant job at number 6 in India’s previous tour and after his retirement the team management has failed to find an able replacement for that spot. After trying Yuvraj unsuccessfully for few games, the management has now kept faith on young Suresh Raina. They probably expect his enormous ODI experience to finally show through in tests as well. Raina though had a disastrous home series against New Zealand and his frailty against the short pitched stuff will surely be exploited by the South African fast bowlers. He needs to figure out a way to counter the barrage. If he fails to do so, I am thinking that Dhoni has to seriously consider replacing him with much more technically sound Pujara. The other important batting spot will be the captain himself at number 7. He needs to shed his poor form and perform consistently for the team with the bat at that position and of course his leadership on the field will be very important.
The Indians will be entering this series as the best side in the world and a win would give them tremendous boost and confidence. Dhoni and Kirsten will be aware that in case of a slip up, their rankings will be questioned again. They are playing a team who are second in the rankings and have been fantastic over a sustained period of time. They are a hard team to beat anywhere, especially at home. Their pace attack will be a threat and their batting led by Amla and Kallis will be hard to dislodge. The Indians will be very much aware that they will face much sterner test of character than the just concluded home series against the Kiwis. Dhoni I guess has all the ammunitions this time to turn this series onto a memorable one for the Indians. If they manage to win the series they will for sure be undisputed number 1 team in the world and I hope that Dhoni and his men put up a great performance in this series.