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India vs South Africa: 2nd Test Preview
The on going India-South Africa series, billed as the "World Championship of Cricket" moves to the Eden Gardens in Kolkata for the second test match starting on Sunday, February 14th. The stakes are very high for the final test of this impromptu series between the top two sides in the ICC rankings with the winner poised to pocket $175,000 which the ICC gives to the team that is on top of the Test Championship rankings come April 1st.

The clinical Proteas, who came to India on the back of a gruelling test series against England, comprehensively beat the home side in the first test at Nagpur in less than four days. On the first day when South Africa were reduced to 6 for 2, it looked as though they were affected by the crisis that engulfed them leading up to the tour. But, a brilliant display of batting; first by the ever dependable veteran Jacques Kallis, and then by the wristy Hashim Amla, who notched up his maiden double ton, swung the momentum firmly in the visitor's favour. With a mammoth total on board, the South African bowlers took full advantage of a weakened Indian batting line-up that had both Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman missing due to injuries. The Indians were found wanting by Dale Styen's unrelenting line of attack at Nagpur. He bowled with venom, constantly clocking above the 140 kmph mark, troubling the batsmen with both conventional and reverse swing en route to a 10 wicket match haul, which proved as decisive as Amla's heroics with the bat.

The defeat at Nagpur, by an innings and six runs, is one of the worst that this Indian team had to endure in the recent past and the first under the captaincy of MS Dhoni. Apart from a century in either innings from Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, the home team had absolutely nothing to show for in the first test.

The forced selection of Wriddhiman Saha as a specialist batsmen due to under picking batsmen in the match squad left the selectors with plenty of egg on their face. Though the selectors might argue that it was a cruel twist of fate - the twin injuries to Laxman and his replacement Rohit Sharma - that led to Saha's debut, the inclusion of Saha in the squad, ahead of Dinesh Karthik was questionable. Karthik hit back in the best way imaginable by scoring more than 300 runs against West Zone in the Duleep Trophy final.

Australian legend Ian Chappell believes that India cannot sustain their number one status in test cricket due to the lack of a "champion" bowler, MS Dhoni backed his bowlers by saying that they were good enough to bowl out any opposition. But after the first test debacle, he must be pondering how his bowlers can dismiss the Proteas once, forget twice. Apart from the first one hour on day one, when Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma made good use of the early bite in the pitch, never were the South African batsmen threatened by any of the Indian bowlers - neither spin nor pace. Zaheer, who has been the spearhead of the bowling attack for a very long time, needs to show more consistency for India to pressurize the Proteas. And the fact that Ishant is a bowler, who is short on confidence and devoid of ideas at present, is common knowledge.

After an impressive debut series against Australia Down Under, the Delhi lad has been consistently over bowled in competitions and has lacked both venom and consistency. What he needs is a good work out in the domestic circuit, to get back his rhythm and most importantly, his confidence. Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, who sat out of the first test with a thigh strain, has been recalled for the second. Given his good track record against the Proteas, he looks set to be given a chance in the Kolkata test at the expense of a hapless Ishant. Along with Sreesanth, wicket-keeper batsman Dinesh Karthik and young middle-order batsman Suresh Raina have been included in the squad for the second test. The back-up seamers, Sudeep Tyagi and Abhimanyu Mithun, and reserve wicketkeeper, Saha, have been dropped from the first test squad. The chairman of selectors, Kris Srikanth has declared that Laxman is fit and that he will be taking part in the second test. Laxman's return will surely bolster the fragile looking Indian middle-order.

Coming into the series, it was widely believed that the outcome of the test matches depended on how well the Proteas can handle the Indian spinners, Harbhajan Singh in particular. But after the first test, the visitors must be wondering what all the fuss was about as they scored freely against both Harbhajan and Amit Mishra. Harbhajan, who took over the mantle of India's leading spinner from Anil Kumble, had a dreadful match, returning with figures of 2 for 166, with only a solitary maiden in 46 overs. In the seven test matches since Kumble's retirement, Harbhajan has failed to pick a five wicket haul even once. That being said, India will be relying heavily on the "Turbunator", as they look to get the better of South Africa in the second test. Harbhajan, who was instrumental in leveling the series when the visitors toured India back in 2008, has a great record at the Eden Gardens. The onus will be on him to deliver the goods on a pitch that is sure to assist the spinners. Harbhajan's partner in crime Amit Mishra bowled decently, but went wicket less, it would not be too much of a surprise if the selectors opt to bring in left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha in his place.

The opening pair of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir will have to deliver the goods at the top of the order, which they so consistently have over the last year or so. Gambhir, who uncharacteristically failed twice in the first test, really holds the key for India, especially with Dravid missing from the team. The fielding, as always has let the team down at Nagpur and it really needs to improve if India are serious about being the number one team in the test arena.

Amidst all the problems surrounding the home team, the South Africans in contrast look quietly confident heading into the final test. Their batting looks formidable after having piled on over 550 runs in the first test. The only worry for them would be the fitness of their captain Graeme Smith, who sustained a finger injury while fielding at the Eden Gardens during a practice session in the build-up to the final test on Sunday. Though Smith failed with the bat in Nagpur, his captaincy was praised by one and all. In his absence, Johan Botha might be included in the team as captain and AB de Villiers could be bumped up to open the innings along with Ashwell Prince. JP Duminy, who burst onto the international scene with a brilliant 166 at Melbourne against Australia in his debut series back in 2008, hasn't been amongst the runs in recent times. He needs to contribute with the bat, to cement his place in the test team. If Kallis and Amla continue their good form, the Proteas are sure to put the Indian bowlers through another grinder.

Dale Steyn was exceptional at Nagpur and he must be raring to have another crack at the Indians at Eden Gardens. His pace attack partners, Morne Morkel and Wayne Parnell were decent in Nagpur, supporting him by keeping the runs in check though out the match. The Proteas' strategy to attack the batsmen with the pace and bounce of Steyn from one end and, bottle up the other end with the orthodox left arm spinner Paul Harris, worked wonders for them in Nagpur. Harris, who outshone his more illustrious counterpart, Harbhajan Singh in the test match, bowled 19 maiden overs with an economy rate of shade above 2 in more than 50 overs in Nagpur. Dhoni acknowledged the fact that it was very difficult to score against Harris, who employed an over the wicket line. "He can really bind one end for them. He's one bowler who can really bowl 30 overs out of the 90 in the day. You can't look to play, just 30 overs you can block, at some point of time you have to look for runs. At the same time there's not plenty of shots you can offer to that line of attack", said Dhoni of Harris.

The last time the Proteas toured India, they inflicted an innings defeat on the hosts in the first test in Ahmedabad thanks to a Steyn 8-for, only to lose the second test on a rank turner in Kanpur. When questioned about the glaring similarities with the 2008 series, Smith candidly replied, "So are you telling me there's a guy with a rake at the Eden Gardens?".

Prabir Mukherjee, the curator at Eden Gardens told the Telegraph, "I got a call from one of the BCCI officials requesting me to prepare a turning track as per the wish of the team management. The Eden Gardens wicket will have even bounce and decent carry. Spinners will come into play as the match meanders along."

Even if a rank turner awaits the two teams at Eden Gardens, the Indians could fail to capitalize on their home advantage if they fail to win the toss. With Laxman back in the scheme of things, the Indian batting sure looks stronger but unless Harbhajan fires at Kolkata, it is really hard to see India hanging onto the top spot in the ICC Test Rankings.

Probable Starting XI

India: Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Murali Vijay, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Subramaniam Badrinath, MS Dhoni, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Pragyan Ojha, S Sreesanth.

South Africa: Graeme Smith, Ashwell Prince, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Mark Boucher, Paul Harris, Wayne Parnell, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel.


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