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India hope to do a Houdini act

December 14, 2006 14:46 IST

India will have to back words with action if they hope to buck the trend and script a turn-around victory in the first cricket Test against South Africa starting at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on Friday.

India is clinging on to shining exceptions and past records as reasons to spark a revival but it is easier said than done against a hostile attack in its familiar and bouncy terrain.

Wanderers has traditionally been quicker and bouncier of most pitches in South Africa and rarely ends without a result as just one draw in the last nine Tests since 1998 testifies.

On an average, a wicket falls after every 30 runs and the average scoring per over at this ground is a mere 2.94 runs. These grim statistics tell us why visiting batsmen don't look forward to paying a visit to the 'Bull Ring'.

India have figures to back their case, though. They haven't been beaten in their two encounters at the Wanderers and on both occasions a back-to-the-wall century by a batsman has bailed them out.

If it was Sanjay Manjrekar's 111 which allowed them to hold their own in 1992-1993 series, it was Rahul Dravid's maiden century in 1997 which nearly brought India a famous win.

That's been the closest India has come to winning a Test in South Africa. They still have a dismal record of four defeats and five draws from nine matches on South African soil.

And Dravid himself has been racing against time to be fit for the Test.

The plaster is still on his right middle finger, but the skipper is unshakeable in his belief that he would turn out for India.

Dravid, since the diagnosis in Cape Town on November 27, has been medically advised to skip the first Test but he seems to have opted against it.

He was back in the nets within 10 days and a gradual hitting of soft balls has progressed to the point where he is pitting himself against the bowling machine in real-time speed.

He has once again sought medical opinion on the progress of his finger and could be seen using ice to hold off swelling, if any. Still, the presence of plaster is a reminder that Dravid could be rushing up his return.

Yet, there is no denying the fact that the team needs Dravid badly, even if only half-fit, at the moment.

India can point to a power-packed line-up of Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly who have 91 Test centuries between them.

Ganguly is returning to the team after more than 10 months and hit the ground running with a half-century in the warm-up game last week.

So impressed was his adversary and coach Greg Chappell that he invited the Bengal Tiger to give a pep talk to his teammates on the adjustments the batsmen have to make while playing on the bouncy tracks.

The hosts are expected to roll out a 'green carpet' as they hope to continue to exploit Indian batsmen's weakness against fast bowling on grass tracks.

India's hope in such a scenario would only be that its own fast bowlers are capable of feeding the South Africans a spoon of their own medicine.

The attack of Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and VRV Singh look reasonable and Anil Kumble is redoubtable as ever but South Africans appear too much on a roll to brook any stopping.

Their Test batting is not as fragile as their one-day eleven could appear at times.

Hashim Amla and Ashwell Prince are two middle order batsmen who lend solidity and depth to their line-up.

They are the builders, along with Jacques Kallis, among a group of batsmen who prefer going after the bowling.

It is in their bowling where South Africa carry a real punch about them.

The pace quartet of Shaun Pollock, Andre Nel, Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini is arguably second to none in world cricket, most certainly at home, where their understanding of conditions make them impregnable.

The weather forecast is fair for the Test barring a rain hold-up on the second day.

How Dravid and his men carry out their promise and perform a Houdini Act will be the object of curiosity, if not disbelief.

Teams (likely):
India: Rahul Dravid (captain), Virender Sehwag, Wasim Jaffer, VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and VRV Singh.

South Africa: Graeme Smith (captain), Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, Ashwell Prince, AB de Villiers, Mark Boucher, Shaun Pollock, Andre Nel, Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini.

Umpires: Mark Benson (Eng) and Daryl Harper (Aus).

Match referee: Roshan Mahanama (Sri Lanka).

Hours of play (IST): 2-4pm; 4.40-6.40pm; 7pm till close.

Ashish Shukla
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