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Time to rehearse

- Rain leaves question mark over ground conditions
Virat Kohli

Calcutta/Benoni: After misfiring in the first two one-dayers, Wednesday was the last chance for the Indian batsmen to earn some confidence going into the Test series.

However, elements played spoilsport and now there’s no opportunity for the Shikhar Dhawans to prove to the Dale Steyns before the Test series that they too can stand up tall to the bouncers.

That said, the Indians would get to shake off some of the rust when they take on a South African Invitational XI, in a two-day practice game, in Benoni, from Friday.

The match, to be played at the Sahara Willowmoore Park — some 30 kms in the outskirts of Johannesburg, will officially be their last appearance on the cricket field before taking on the might of Steyn and Morkel in a Test series that is certainly going to test their character. A test that will be much harder than the one they faced in the one-dayers.

But there’s a problem. According to a cricket specific website, Benoni has received massive rainfall in the last three weeks. Will the ground be ready for play?

The website quoted Willowmoore Park groundsman Brendon Frost as saying that the ground is 90 per cent prepared. “It has been quite a mission to get it up to standard, but I’d say we’re 90% there. The pitch is nice and hard with an evening covering of grass. So I’m happy with that. It’s the outfield that’s a bit of a concern because there are some places where it’s a bit soft,” Frost said.

Coming back to the Indian camp, there’s no point singling out any particular batsman, because the failure has been collective. Be it Dhawan or Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli or Suresh Raina, even captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni himself, almost all the willow-wielders of the touring India party looked helpless in front of the Proteas pacers who are spitting fire.

Apart from the ones mentioned above, there would be two others who would be keen to get some runs in the warm-up game… Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay. Both of them are part of just the Test squad and hence didn’t have any competitive outing unlike their ODI counterparts. This will be their only chance enter a positive frame of mind.

While Vijay’s role will be crucial as Dhawan’s opening partner right at the top of the batting order, Pujara will have the monstrous responsibility of shouldering the Indian middle-order in the post-Sachin Tendulkar era. The Test series against South Africa is India’s first after Sachin’s retirement and hence the team is bound to miss his assurance in the middle order. So if Pujara hopes to be the rock in the Indian batting order, it’s better he begins the job from Friday itself.

One’s not sure if either of Ambati Rayudu or Ajinkya Rahane would get a chance to play on Friday.

Before the tour, bowling, and not batting, was considered to be India’s concern. The scenario has changed now. While the bowlers haven’t exactly dazzled, they certainly didn’t look as helpless as the batsmen.

While Mohammed Shami has been consistent, Ishant Sharma impressed with a four-wicket haul on Wednesday. But more than Shami and Ishant, all eyes will be on Zaheer Khan. The experienced left-arm pacer is making a comeback after a year and is expected to lead the Indian attack in the Test series.

The match will be equally important for the spinners. Ravichandran Ashwin didn’t make any impact in the one-dayers and needs to adjust his bowling to the conditions quickly.

Since 12 players will be allowed per side, it will be an added advantage for the Indian team, for they will also get to test their entire bowling line-up.

However, as the South African Invitational XI lack big names, one wonders if the practice match will be practice enough for the Indians. They don’t have a choice but.

Match starts: 1:30 pm (IST)