Their number one ranking under threat, a desperate India cannot settle for anything less than a win when they go into the second and final cricket Test against South Africa, who might have to take the field without inspirational captain Graeme Smith.
Smith has been rendered a doubtful starter because of a finger injury he sustained during practice yesterday and a final call on his availability will be taken on Sunday.
Having crushed India by an innings and six runs in the first Test in Nagpur, South Africa lead the two-match series 1-0 and they just need a draw at the Eden Gardens to snatch the top spot in the ICC rankings from the hosts.
With both the series and their Test ranking at stake, India have been bolstered by the return of VVS Laxman, who is all set to make a comeback at his happy-hunting ground where he scored a 281 in the second innings to script an epochal turnaround in their Test against Australia in March 2001.
In the absence of Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh due to injuries, Laxman, who is back after recovering from a finger injury, will form Indian batting’s backbone along with the ever-reliable trio of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir.
The injury-hit Indian line-up was blown away by speedster Dale Steyn, who secured match figures of 10 for 108, in the Nagpur Test where an unbeaten 253 by Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis’ 173 also played a major part in the host team’s loss.
The loss also brought India’s 11-match undefeated streak to an end as skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni conceded, “We were outplayed by South Africa in all departments of the game.”
India’s pace spearhead Zaheer Khan did not get much support from Ishant Sharma in Nagpur and the think-tank may bring in temperamental S Sreesanth back after his recovery from an injury.
Another reason for worry would be off-spinner Harbhajan Singh’s lackluster form as India could not bundle out South Africa despite the good start given by Zaheer in Nagpur.
Harbhajan conceded 166 runs from 46 overs in Nagpur at an economy rate of 3.6 and in his entire bowling he had only one maiden compared to 19 in the match by his South African counterpart Paul Harris.
A green-top Eden Gardens might not have cheered Harbhajan at first sight, but the off-spinner will surely be happy to be back at his favourite ground where he picked 38 wickets in six Tests.
In fact, Dhoni has backed him saying, “I’m not worried about him. He is a great bowler as is evident from his statistics. He is a big match player and makes comebacks in big games.”
There has been lot of talk surrounding the Eden strip especially after India’s loss in the Nagpur Test. The BCCI reportedly asked curator Prabir Mukherjee to prepare a turning wicket to help India’s traditional strength.
But Mukherjee and CAB chief Jagmohan Dalmiya have denied this outrightly saying a wicket could not be prepared overnight. In contrast, the Eden track sported a green tinge and Mukherjee said, “It would be mowed down in time. But the wicket will be a sporting and result-oriented.”
“We always get to see results on Eden wicket barring the last Test (vs Pakistan) where it went up to the fifth day.
This time also it will be no different,” he added. He, however, said seamers might get help from the breeze with a few stands demolished because of the World Cup renovation work.
On a two-match winning streak, South Africa are high on confidence as they eye a win at the Eden for a rare series victory.
“The momentum is with us, we are focusing on what we can do best and are not thinking much about our opponents,” said a confident AB de Villiers ahead of the Test.