India eye redemption in Durban

Doubts over Gambhir's availability after the opener suffers a hit on his left-hand while training

India eye redemption in Durban

To suggest that it reflects the mood in the Indian camp might be stretching things but there are no prizes for guessing which side will be more desperate for the sun to beat down on their backs over the next five days.

At no other venue is the cricket impacted as much by the elements as at Kingsmead, where India will be hoping to break their duck in the second Test starting on Sunday.
When it is overcast, as is forecast for most of the next five days, Kingsmead is a bowlers’ ally. As if pace and bounce off the surface aren’t enough, the ball swings around prodigiously, necessitating batsmen to make technical and mental adjustments.

When the sun is out, the track flattens out considerably. The lightning quick outfield and shorter boundaries always provide value for runs, and while there is enough to keep the bowlers interested, batsmen can feel ‘in’ for reasonable periods of time.

Zaheer Khan’s eagerly-awaited return notwithstanding, India will be hoping against hope that the forecasters have got it wrong and that the sun does shine on them. Otherwise, they could be in for another bruising battle against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, the South African battering rams that triggered a sensational first-day collapse in Centurion.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni wasn’t being ‘smart’ when he remarked that post-Centurion, there was only one way the Indian team could go – up. Indeed, everything that could go wrong did so in the first Test, starting with the loss of Zaheer on the match-eve. India can’t be faulted for trying to write off Centurion as a bad dream, though they have tried to learn from the lessons emanating from the innings and 25-run drubbing.

South Africa have shown in the past, as recently as at SuperSport Park, that when they get on top early, they seldom allow the opposition back into the contest. India will perforce have to begin well, with bat and ball, if they are to transfer some pressure back on to a unit in excellent health in all departments.

Zaheer’s presence, therefore, becomes vital largely, but not only, because of the stranglehold he has had over Graeme Smith. It is to be expected that the return of the leader of the pack will rejuvenate Ishant Sharma and S Sreesanth, particularly lacklustre beyond belief in the first Test.

India will spend a restless night fretting over Gautam Gambhir’s fitness. A key element in India’s designs of making a strong early statement with the bat, the left-handed opener was struck on his left hand during Saturday nets at the same spot where Morkel had pinged him in the first Test. Gambhir has a swelling behind the left palm and has only a 50-50 chance of playing on the morrow.

As has been for a while now, the length of Sehwag’s occupation of the crease will decide how much initiative the Indians wrest. The shortish square boundaries will embolden him to go over the top even when South Africa have an attacking third-man in place. The Proteas looked slightly bereft of ideas when Sehwag cut loose briefly in the second innings in Centurion; a longer stint will positively rattle them, and ease the load off the classy middle-order with plenty to prove in a country where they have not have overwhelming success.

A change in personnel in the lower middle-order is on the cards with the embattled Suresh Raina set to make way for the exciting Cheteshwar Pujara. The youngster’s temperament, as much as his skills, will be put to the sternest test by Steyn and Morkel; if he can come away with as much panache as he did on debut against Australia, Pujara can book himself in for exciting challenges ahead.

Hard to believe, but South Africa have one weak link too. Lonwabo Tsotsobe was as disappointing as the Indian seamers in Centurion, and could be replaced by fellow left-arm quick Wayne Parnell. All the more reason for the sun to start shining, entirely from an Indian perspective, of course!

Teams (from): South Africa: Graeme Smith (capt), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Ashwell Prince, Mark Boucher, Dale Steyn, Paul Harris, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, JP Duminy, Ryan McLaren.

India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), G Gambhir, V Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, S Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, C Pujara, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, S Sreesanth, M Vijay, Suresh Raina, Jaidev Unadkat, Umesh Yadav, Pragyan Ojha, Wriddhiman Saha.

Umpires: Steve Davis (Aus) and Asad Rauf (Pak). Match referee: Andy Pycroft (Zimbabwe).

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