In an era of several meaningless one-day internationals, this is one series designed to buck the trend. For starters, it pits the world’s number two against the number four-ranked team, the former desperate to overturn a most dismal record in the latter’s backyard. For another, it’s the last set of 50-over matches for both India and South Africa before next month’s World Cup in the sub-continent. To cap it all, both sides are in with a realistic chance of displacing Australia from the top of the heap going into cricket’s flagship event.
For all their exploits around the world that have catapulted them to second in the ICC one-day rankings, India have found the Proteas almost impossible to crack on South African soil. Multiple tries spread over bilateral and triangular series have yielded a measly three wins in 20 matches, a record Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s path-breaking team will be desperate to improve upon over the next 12 days and five matches.
There is no logical explanation for India’s abysmal limited-overs performances against South Africa here. They have beaten practically every other team, Australia excluded, and done so with some style mainly during their brilliant run to the final of the 2003 World Cup, but the hosts have been a hard nut to crack with their all-round strength, depth and discipline.
That said, India are anything but underdogs going into game one, at Kingsmead, on Wednesday afternoon. They have been in South Africa for more than a month now, are well-versed with the conditions as well as the expertise of their opponents, and will relish the confidence that the return of Sachin Tendulkar inevitably generates.
The little master hasn’t played a 50-over game since his epic unbeaten 200, against the same opposition, in Gwalior in late February. Determined to pace himself for the World Cup and occasionally troubled by niggles that are a direct fall-out of advancing years, Tendulkar finally emerges from a self-imposed exile with an eye on shaking off the cobwebs and dusting the rust with the big bash imminent.
Despite having redefined his approach to the limited-overs game, Tendulkar has provided enough indications in the last two years, which scores of 163 retd hurt (against New Zealand in Christchurch), 175 (against Australia in Hyderabad) and that historic double ton that while he may no longer be the rampaging force, he is a more comprehensive package capable of scoring as quickly as ever without resorting to violence.
His battles with Dale Steyn were quite the highlight of the Test series, and while the nature of the one-day game doesn’t necessarily encourage such head-to-heads, this fascinating clash of the titans should set the tone for the rest of the series.
Almost as exciting will be the initiation into international cricket of the much-hyped Imran Tahir, a 31-year-old leg-spinner who should bring variety and aggression to a largely conservative outfit. Graeme Smith’s men have invariably been found wanting at the crunch in major international competitions. The Lahore-born Tahir, a proven wicket-taker in domestic cricket, will bring with him the flair South Africa have so desperately yearned for from their spinning options, though he might have to wait a bit for his debut.
Jacques Kallis’ unavailability is as much of a blow for the hosts as Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir’s for India. Additionally, India will also be without Praveen Kumar, whose swing would have been a handful in these conditions but whose campaign has ended even before it began with an elbow injury.
Traditionally, Kingsmead under lights has been as much a swing bowler’s ally as a batsman’s nightmare. Ashish Nehra will fondly remember his six for 23 against England in the 2003 World Cup, and hope Dhoni’s luck with the coin holds because otherwise, against Steyn, Morne Morkel and Wayne Parnell, India’s strong but occasionally susceptible middle-order will have its work cut out.
There has been a fair bit of rain around in Durban, somewhat hampering curator Wilson Ngobese’s preparations, but the green cover that adorned the strip for the Boxing Day Test is conspicuous by its absence. After all, this is limited-overs cricket, with the onus on unlimited entertainment.