A mix of bouncy pitches and incisive fast bowlers led by Steyn will be more than a handful

On the road leading to the Wanderers Stadium, venue of the first Test here from Wednesday, the local newspaper The Star had plastered a pamphlet with a headline ‘India bank on Pujara’. In the post-Sachin Tendulkar era, it was a pointer to the changes that had swept across the Indian batting landscape.

When India steps out against South Africa, missing in its ranks would be a man who donned its colours since the 1989 Test at Karachi.

Tendulkar, the last of the golden generation has bowed out and with that the transition-process is nearly complete while Zaheer Khan, who made his debut before M.S. Dhoni, is the only senior, besides the skipper, to be in the squad.

Inevitable consequence

A new-look Indian line-up was an inevitable consequence of the sands of time running out for Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman, Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly, while poor form eased out Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Harbhajan Singh. These changes were organic in nature and not a forced endeavour like how it happened in the 1990s when the late Raj Singh Dungarpur spoke about the ‘Team of the Nineties.’

Since playing in Australia in early 2012, India’s Tests have been confined to its own backyard and the results were flattering. Young men like Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma have made runs. But stepping into South Africa with its mix of bouncy pitches and incisive fast bowlers, India’s batsmen are bound to face a reality check and there is no ‘Sachin Paaji’ around.

Tendulkar may have been a dull shadow over the last year but the quiet word he had, the technical inputs he shared and the sense of security he bequeathed, will be missed. Dhoni though clarified that his team has made its peace with the maestro’s absence and said: “We have accepted the fact that he won’t be there.”

The start that the openers can provide and the way the middle-order, notably Kohli and Pujara, shape up will be critical for India to stay afloat against the number one Test side. The preceding ODI series that India lost 0-2, hardly witnessed any batting spark and it is imperative that such blips are not repeated in the longer version where Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, will keep coming harder spell after spell.

It remains to be seen if Dhoni would seek batting-insurance and opt for Ajinkya Rahane ahead of Ravindra Jadeja. But with the captain and R. Ashwin coming lower down the order, there is surely depth but the moot question is whether the Indians can collectively withstand a strong home attack.

In the opening one-dayer, a few weeks back, the fast bowlers found tremendous assistance from the pitch.

A steady breeze blowing across and the wicket’s inherent bounce would mean that not just the South African speedsters but even the Indian bowlers will come into play, especially Zaheer, from whom much is expected.

Good run

South Africa has had a good run in Tests this year, beating New Zealand (2-0) and Pakistan (3-0) at home while drawing 1-1 with Pakistan in the Middle East. It has seasoned batsmen and captain Graeme Smith scored a double hundred in the Proteas’ last Test at Dubai. And now with Tendulkar’s exit, it is time, however belated, to also celebrate the genius of Jacques Kallis, who is perhaps the last of the game’s giants at the moment.

India, meanwhile, will look ahead with hope and also stare into the past with a sense of pride. It won a Test here in 2006 by 123 runs besides drawing two other games in 1992 and 1997. Those are benchmarks that have to be met. Easier said than done.

The teams (from):

India: M.S. Dhoni (captain), Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Chesteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja, Ajinkya Rahane, R. Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Pragyan Ojha, Wriddhiman Saha and Ambati Rayudu.

South Africa: Graeme Smith (captain), Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, A.B. de Villiers, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Dean Elgar, Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir, Rory Kleinveldt, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Alviro Petersen, Robin Peterson and Thami Tsolekile.

Umpires: Rod Tucker and Steve Davis; Third umpire: Shaun George.

Match referee: Andy Pycroft.

Match starts at 1.30 p.m., IST.

More In: Cricket | Sport