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India have South Africa, milestones in sight

Last updated on: March 25, 2008 18:11 IST

It will not only be a battle for the Future Cup when India and South Africa commence the three-Test series on Wednesday, but also a contest in near-boiling temperatures in Chennai for the second spot in the ICC rankings.

- Images from Chennai

India are firmly perched on second place after an impressive showing in Australia, but South Africa are not far behind. An upset victory here could see them snatch India's spot.

The hosts, as expected, are going into the first Test with two spinners to take advantage of the hot and humid conditions in Chennai. India captain Anil Kumble is hoping to win the toss and post a big first innings score on what he believes is a good batting wicket at the M A Chidambaram stadium.

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"We are going in with two spinners. We have not yet decided on the eleven," Kumble said on Tuesday. "It looks a good surface, a typical Chennai wicket. It should be a batting surface and as the game progresses the spinners will definitely come into the picture. It will have a good bounce and carry as well."

The five-bowler theory is not on India's agenda for the moment. They have given opener Wasim Jaffer another lifeline after his awful series in Australia. The Mumbai opener scored just 49 runs from six innings Down Under, but his consistency on slow pitches at home might have forced the team management to give him yet another opportunity.

Also, the presence of all-rounders like Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar makes up for the lack of a fifth bowler.

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"There is always a thought [about playing five bowlers], but we have the bowlers like Sourav [Ganguly], Sehwag and Sachin who can fill in that role as well. So it is still a thought; we will see how it goes, but as of now we are looking at two [pacers] and two [spinners]," Kumble said.

The veteran leg-spinner, who is the third highest wicket-taker in Tests with a haul of 604 wickets, feels India needs to sustain the momentum from the Australia tour and continue the march towards being the best Test team in the world.

"It will be a first step to ensure we continue the good work that we had done in Australia. We have a lot of Test cricket coming up this year, so in that regards this is the beginning of what will be a good, long season for Test cricket.

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"I think we are all geared up to ensure that we go out there and do our best. It is important to do that time and again in Test cricket, because every session counts, every day counts and we have done that throughout the Australian series. We are really confident going into this Test series. So, in that sense, if we do well and win this series it will definitely give us a bit more lead in keeping that [second] spot," he said.

With India scheduled to host Australia and England, combined with a tour to Sri Lanka this year, Kumble believes the team has a good chance to topple the Aussies from the top of the Test rankings.

"That is a definitely huge incentive. I have mentioned this before as well for some of the senior players in terms of their individual achievements; I think everyone has achieved whatever is possible on the cricket field.

"So, as a unit, it is important to ensure that Indian cricket moves forward and we have that opportunity in front of us. Having said that we would like to take one series at a time and ensure that we start well in this series and then take it forward," he said.

All eyes will surely be on the legendary Sachin Tendulkar, who needs 171 runs to go past Brian Lara's record of most runs in Test cricket. The Indian batting ace currently has 11782 runs in 146 Tests against the former West Indies captain's tally of 11953 runs in 131 matches.

Also, Chennai happens to be a favourite hunting ground for the 'little master', who has a Bradmanesque average of 92.00, for an aggregate of 736 runs in seven Tests with four centuries and a fifty, at the Chidambaran stadium.

Rahul Dravid also has a milestone in sight. The Karnataka batsman needs another 80 runs to join the 10,000-run club in Test cricket, which already includes two Indians, Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar (10122 runs in 125 Tests).

No wonder the Indian captain is hoping these two experienced batsmen along with the equally capable VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly helps the bowlers's cause with a huge score in the first innings.

"I think whenever we have played at home we have been able to post big scores on the board and that will be the key. I think to win any Test match, whether you play at home or away, it is important to bat well and we have the batting capabilities of doing that. I am confident that we will be able to put up a big score.

"Once you do that, the pressure of playing on the pitch, with the spinners and the fast bowlers putting pressure -- and this is how we won matches and we would like to continue that way," he said.

Kumble believes South Africa have always performed well in the subcontinent and cannot be taken lightly. It was in 2000 that South Africa swept India 2-0 after the batsmen failed to deliver against the likes of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock. On this tour too, South Africa boast of a potent pace attack in Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel and Monde Zondeki. They won their last six Test series, and their last Test series loss came in Sri Lanka in 2006.

"Obviously, they will certainly miss Shaun Pollock's experience and skill. But as a unit they have done well in the last couple of series in the sub-continent, so you should give them that credit.

"South Africa has always been a competitive side, they have done well in India. Dale Steyn, Morkel and Makhaya, and the rest of them are a good bowling unit and Kallis as well. We would like to concentrate on our strengths and I think if we play to potential we definitely have the advantage," Kumble added.

He believes that the searing Chennai heat will be a factor.

"It will be the same for both teams, but I think we are used to the conditions. We are looking to post a big first innings score and put pressure on the opposition."

India and South Africa have played seven series, with the latter winning five out of them. The two victories for India came at home in 1996-97 and 2004-05 and they will no doubt be keen to add to the tally.

Harish Kotian in Chennai