i) India’s final frontier? Surely you joke. The last time this expression was used, Australia were in India in 2004, having won everything that mattered, home and away. India have not won a series in Sri Lanka in 17 years. They’ve not won a Test series in Australia and South Africa, ever. To call South Africa the final frontier would be to thoughtlessly hype this series.
ii) Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar may not return to South Africa to play Tests after this tour. They have below-par records in that country. Will they set it right for good? That partly depends on what well South Africa’s bowlers perform. Just how good are they? Former captain Clive Rice commented that India have better bowlers than the home team.
iii) There’s been plenty of talk of a fast, bouncy wicket in Centurion. In Dale Steyn, South Africa have a lethal leader of the attack. In Morne Morkel he has a good partner. But Morkel has a less than threatening record against India — six matches, 15 wickets at an average of 40.2.
iv) India won’t be shivering in their boots at the sight of the rest of South Africa’s pace attack — Parnell, Tsotsobe, McLaren— who have eight Test wickets in six matches combined. Since 2008, Jacques Kallis has tended to bowl about 10 overs an innings --- not enough to impact a Test. His record against teams apart from Bangladesh in this period — 24 matches, 33 wickets at 41.15 — would not worry India.
v) The last time there was a talk of blowing India away on a fast, bouncy wicket was in Perth. We all know how that worked out for Australia. Also think of what Sreesanth inflicted upon the home team one overcast noon in Johannesburg. In helpful conditions, Zaheer Khan — if he recovers from his hamstring problem — will be as good as anything South Africa can throw at India.
vi) Then, there’s the left-arm spinner Paul Harris. In 2006, India paid undue respect to his leg-stump line and paid for it with the Test series. Since his eventful debut, Harris has done alright for himself in his run-containing role. But India in 2010 are a moving target, a vastly superior team.
vii) India play the second Test in Durban. The first image the word ‘Durban’ projects in one’s head is of India’s capitulation in 1996. Even in 2006, India could only reduce the margin of defeat, from 328 runs to 174. Durban holds dangers for India. But Cape Town would be no better. Since their return to Test cricket, South Africa have lost only to Australia — thrice — at this venue, drawn four Tests and won 14 times.
viii) Cape Town is also a venue were left-arm spinners have done well. Paul Adams, Paul Harris, Nicky Boje have good Test records here. England’s Johnny Briggs took 15-28 against the home team, but that was in 1889. A case for playing Pragyan Ojha here instead of Harbhajan Singh?
ix) Suresh Raina has been consistently marked out as the batsman with problems against the short ball. Gautam Gambhir’s pre-NZ form was worrying too but he’s made runs in the ODIs. But Raina’s Test form has been suspect --- 58 runs in the last six innings. Don’t be surprised if he makes way for Che Pujara halfway through the series.
x) Final thought — this is the No. 1 side taking on the No. 2 side on their turf. This is India’s toughest tour since Australia. Intense action on the field is a given; expect things to be equally interesting off the field. Remember Nel vs Sreesanth? Or the Mike Denness incident?