| Sourav Ganguly during practice in Johannesburg on Thursday, the eve of India's first Test against South Africa. (Reuters)
Johannesburg: ‘You’re now entering (provincial outfit Highveld) Lion’s territory’ is a signage which can’t be missed as visiting teams enter their dressing room at the regal Wanderers. It may just inspire the Indians who, thus far, have been anything but lions on what has become a disastrous tour.
Captain Rahul Dravid didn’t talk about it in the lead-up to the first Castle Test, which begins on Friday, but did say that the past can actually give a fillip. “That we haven’t won a Test in South Africa is a motivator...”
It’s to be seen what inspires/motivates, but the ask couldn’t have been more clearly defined. Having shown no character in the ODIs (South Africa won 4-0), the Indians have the chance to make amends.
As Dravid put it, cricket is an “emotional sport” back in India. “We have the tools and, now, it’s a question of implementing plans... I’ve been asking the boys to be positive, to draw inspiration from the good performances in the last four-five years... We’re very keen,” he pointed out.
The captain, of course, believes the lack of expectations (given India’s performance in the ODIs) isn’t such a bad thing. “It’s nice to go into a series with not many giving us a chance...” In other words, the pressure is much less.
If it’s comforting, the Indians have drawn the earlier Tests here — in 1992-93 and in 1996-97. With some luck, they could even have won the last time.
Incidentally, while Dravid is fit to bat, he won’t be able to field in slips. Not in the first Test, at least. “The (right middle) finger is fine, but I can’t stand close-in...” He suffered a fracture in the Cape Town ODI.
He added: “I would’ve liked to have more hits leading into the Test, but... I’m at my best when I’m in the right frame of mind... I’m getting there and have the experience of conditions in South Africa.”
In particular, Dravid has “fond memories” of the Wanderers. “This is where I got my first Test hundred (148, in early 1997)... I won’t forget it and the memories are as if I got it yesterday... This is one of my favourite grounds...”
It’s a favourite ground of the South African quicks, too. And, there will be five on view over the next few days. The Indians know Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini; Jacques Kallis and Andre Nel well, but aren’t very familiar with the truly fast and furious Dale Steyn.
They got the opportunity in the tour-opener (versus South Africa A) in Benoni, almost a month ago, but Steyn didn’t allow a look-in. Indeed, he took five for 22 and his victims included Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Wasim Jaffer.
“The Indians are hoping they could bounce back, try and catch us off guard... But our guys have a lot of hunger and our attack has been hitting the straps at nets... Steyn did very well in Benoni and I expect to use him in short bursts... He’s consistently bowling around 150 km,” remarked South African captain Graeme Smith.
Smith, who had mild food poisoning the other day has recovered, but advised those going to Cape Town to “stay away from the fish.”
That apart, he vowed that the South Africans would be positive. “Our mindset is to be more attacking... Expectations are always there... It’s about the demands you place on yourself... It will be fantastic if we achieve the level we had in the one-dayers... We’re a highly motivated team...”
Asked how much of a difference Sourav Ganguly (who is hours away from playing his first Test in ten months) could make, Smith replied: “Sourav’s record speaks for itself... After all that had happened, the big question was how he would fit into the team... He adds experience and could add a bit of hardness to the middle-order...”
For his part, Sourav simply commented: “I’ve been feeling good... I hope the team and I do well in the Tests...”
It rained for a while late on Thursday afternoon, but has otherwise been unusually hot in these parts and, so, the wicket here has attracted more attention than it normally would. Somewhat out of tradition, there are cracks, but Dravid chose not to read much into that.
Smith maintained that the Wanderers “always” had pace, bounce and carry.
As had been indicated by The Telegraph, Irfan Pathan won’t have a role in the first Test. Harbhajan Singh is in the XII, but is certain to sit out as the thinktank isn’t seriously considering playing both specialist spinners.
The South Africans are expected to omit Andrew Hall.
India (likely): Virender Sehwag, Wasim Jaffer, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S.Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth, Vikram Rajvir Singh.
South Africa: Graeme Smith, Herschelle Gibbs, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, Ashwell Prince, AB de Villiers, Mark Boucher, Shaun Pollock, Andre Nel, Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini.
Umpires: Daryl Harper, Mark Benson. TV: Karl Hurter.
Match Referee: Roshan Mahanama.
Match starts: 2.00 pm (IST). Telecast on Star Sports.