Titans engage in battle royale

Former champions India take on the South Africans in their most demanding match yet

Titans engage in battle royale

From India’s perspective, the World Cup proper begins on Saturday, two potentially demanding matches leading them into the quarterfinals.  These two games, South Africa at the VCA stadium in Jamtha here and the West Indies on March 20, are crucial not just from a combination and composition perspective, but also for confidence and momentum, unquantifiables going into the knockout phase where there is no second chance.

India and South Africa have done battle enough times in one-day cricket in the last year to be well aware of each others’ strengths and weaknesses. The Proteas will be hungrier, determined to erase bitter memories of their extraordinary six-run loss to England in Chennai last week, but India have their own fair share of problems to contend with, not least their bowling and fielding.

Both teams came into the World Cup as among the few genuine title contenders, and while they still remain on course to justify that tag, there have been few signs that they are on top of their games.

India have stumbled from one victory to another, hardly turning in a convincing all-round performance despite being the only unbeaten side in the group; the Proteas produced one of their famous ‘chokes’ in Chennai, well placed to overhaul England’s anaemic 171 and yet finding ways of self-destructing.

Eight face-offs since February last year have produced a 4-4 stalemate. South Africa’s greater depth and versatility has been stymied occasionally by their tendency to buckle under pressure, like in Jaipur last year and at the Wanderers in January, where they somehow snatched one-run defeats with victory no more than a stone’s throw away.

India have ridden on the strength of their batting, and their ability to cash in on reasonably favourable bowling conditions, to battle with the Proteas on equal terms. Indeed, their 2-3 defeat in South Africa earlier this year was a commendable effort, given that they were without Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, all tending to minor niggles with the World Cup in sight.

With both outfits at full strength now, it won’t be in the realms of the fantastic to expect a classic. South Africa are yet to ensure qualification – even if that is only a formality – while India must look for all-round consistency and increasingly regular good days in all three facets.

India’s mix-and-match policy with regard to their bowling attack should extend to another game. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Gary Kirsten, heading the think-tank, are yet to decide if they must go in with three seamers or two spinners when the knockouts arrive; Saturday will offer them another opportunity to jot down mental notes as they are set to continue to shuffle their bowling pack around.

Ashish Nehra clearly needs more match hours before the quarters, while Munaf Patel can’t be left in cold storage for too long. Zaheer Khan loathes being rested when he is fit and firing, while some clarity must be attained in the race between Piyush Chawla and R Ashwin, clearly one-sided at the moment because the latter is simply not getting a go.

South Africa have had reasonable practice against leg-spin, what with Imran Tahir in their midst, so it remains to be seen if that will influence Chawla’s selection. After two less than convincing chases, India’s batting too must rouse itself out of its slumber. On a truer track that will encourage stroke-production and against a better attack, India’s batsmen can ill afford the hiccups that characterised their wins over Ireland and the Netherlands.

Beyond the obvious, which is points in the bag, the Proteas will fret over whether it’s worth risking the injured Tahir on Saturday. The Lahore-born leggie, their leading wicket-taker, is nursing a fractured left thumb and has been advised ten days’ rest; should that rest period begin now, the doors could open up offie Johan Botha, until recently a regular in the one-day scheme of things.

Back spasms have prevented AB de Villiers from keeping wickets in the last two games, but he is on the road to recovery. If he pulls up fit, then Morne van Wyk should make way for left-arm paceman Lonwabo Tsotsobe, who troubled the Indians no end in South Africa earlier this year, though that could leave them slightly light on batting

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