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A classic battle awaits the spectators

S. Ram Mahesh

Possibility of bad weather looms over the first Test between India and South Africa

— Photo: AP

Ominous:The elements seem to be the only threat to the first Test of the classic India versus South Africa encounter which is scheduled to start off at the SuperSport Park in Centurion on Thursday.

CENTURION: It's finally upon us.

After weeks of the South Africans staring into the distance with their gun-slinger cool, proclaiming that they were waiting, and the Indians appearing — or, more precisely, being made to appear — as if they were at their ‘Final Frontier', the battle between the world's two best cricket teams will begin here at SuperSport Park on Thursday.

A three-Test series hasn't the scale of a five-Test series. It is at best a chamber opera; its compressed space not always opportune for the full play of nuance — and perhaps this is why the hype-men, as if to compensate, have been promoting this contest with the razzmatazz of a heavyweight boxing fight.

They needn't have bothered, for this is a series that appears to possess naturally all the ingredients of a classic. There's barely a hairline between India and South Africa as they line up: the 1-1 result in India earlier this year showed as much. But will this remain the equation between the sides in South Africa?

SuperSport Park, where the first Test will be played, is as welcoming a venue as you'll hope to see.

Sunk into the Highveld so the neighbouring highway and corner-stores look down on it, the ground, although well-appointed, retains the breezy charm of a smaller centre.

The grass banks, the braai (South African barbecue) stalls, the kitchen-houses with their pointy blue roofs: it's tough not to feel welcome.

But out on the field, it's a different matter for touring sides — South Africa has won 11 and lost only one of the 15 Tests played here.

The surfaces at SuperSport Park have a reputation for true bounce, which helps both the batsmen and the bowlers; the locals say the strips have gained in pace and bounce after the wicket-square was re-laid.

But with the wet weather in the lead-up — it rained on Wednesday morning before clearing slightly — no one is certain how the pitch will play. The South Africans estimate that there will be a greater degree of movement off the seam than is normal — it's also more than what the grounds-man had planned. The overcast conditions and the open nature of the ground should help those with designs of swing.

The signs seem to point to playing conditions that will make possible the procurement of 20 wickets. The forecast isn't great, however, particularly for Thursday, which has a 95 per cent chance of rain.

Friday and Saturday are expected to have better weather, but thunderstorms are forecast for Sunday and Monday. It'll be a pity if much of the game is lost to the elements, for it's full of possibilities.

Opening duel

The contest with the greatest appeal appears to be the one between South Africa's opening bowlers and India's opening batsmen, both pairs with just claims to being the best in the world at what they do.

Certainly, Steyn and Morkel vs. Sehwag and Gambhir in conditions that the latter haven't had to face too often is intriguing on many levels. But there are several other contests, plays within the play, which are eminently capable of absorbing the viewer.

How, for instance, will Dravid, Tendulkar, and Laxman still the questions raised by pace and bounce, the two most ruthless interrogators of the ageing body? Will they outperform Amla, Kallis, and de Villiers?

The number-six batsman is crucial when the possibility of early wickets is heightened. Ashwell Prince, who India found difficult to dislodge when he batted in the middle-order in 2006-07, will bat for South Africa at that position.

Will Suresh Raina, who M.S. Dhoni hinted would retain his spot, answer the doubters? Or will Cheteshwar Pujara receive an opportunity to impress?

Bowling questions

India's bowling will be enfeebled if Zaheer Khan weren't to play, which is what the indications are. Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma have the ability to dismiss top-class batsmen, but neither has in recent times shown the consistency demanded at this level.

A seam attack comprising Sreesanth, Ishant, and a debutant — either left-armer Jaidev Unadkat or the bustling Umesh Yadav — looks thin, but keep in mind that in India's wins abroad, the bowlers have often bowled above their perceived abilities.

Harbhajan Singh might enjoy the conditions (barring a wet ball), for as Shane Warne once pointed out, a wicket that has movement and bounce for a seamer offers the spinner similar gifts. He will know that Graeme Swann was successful in South Africa because he chased wickets.

A similar approach will benefit Harbhajan — and India.

The sides (from): South Africa: Graeme Smith (capt.), Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, A.B. de Villiers, Ashwell Prince, J.P. Duminy, Mark Boucher (wk), Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Paul Harris, Ryan McLaren, Wayne Parnell, and Johan Botha.

India: M.S. Dhoni (capt. & wk), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, Suresh Raina, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, S. Sreesanth, M. Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Pragyan Ojha, Wriddhiman Saha, Umesh Yadav, and Jaidev Unadkat.

Umpires: Ian Gould and Steve Davis; Third umpire: Shaun George; Match referee: Andy Pycroft.

Hours of play (IST): 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., 4.40 p.m. to 6.40 p.m., and 7 p.m. till close .

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