A wet start to the series

The Wanderers is among the cricketing world's great venues. Here the cricketers walk down steep steps from the pavilion while making their way to the ground. This is a ground with a distinct heartbeat and a soul, writes S. Dinakar.

South Africa enthralls. This is a stunning land, showered with nature's riches. This is also a country that witnessed a spirit-lifting and eventually triumphant struggle for justice and freedom.

The image of Nelson Mandela stares down at you from one of the giant hoardings. The great man never ceases to inspire.

The morning traffic in Johannesburg is just building up when the taxi with a group of Indian sports journalists makes its way out of the sprawling airport complex.

The South African capital is an impressive city of buildings, both ancient and modern, lovely boulevards, and giant malls. The city is beautifully spread out, and there is plenty of space and greenery.

We can see the mountains outlining the city. Then there are the ups and the downs as vehicles travel down a slope and rise again, in perfect symphony.

When the sun shines, the city is a blaze of colour. Now dark clouds rule the sky and Johannesburg sports a more sombre setting. It is raining in these parts. The mood in the Indian cricket team would not have been bright too after the debacle against the South Africa `A' side on a bouncy wicket at Benoni.

The fast and furious Dale Steyn had made decisive inroads into the Indian line-up. Now, serious questions are being asked about the ability of the younger crop to withstand the pace barrage from the host on surfaces of this nature.

The answers will unfold in the days ahead. Team India faces a challenging time. Reputations are made and unmade on tours like these.

The Indian journalists have a major problem on hand as well. Several of the media passes are not yet ready. The South African media manager Gordon Templeton explains that some of the applications might have been routed to the wrong department.

Templeton is an affable man. He is asked about the high crime rate in Johannesburg and about the dangers of venturing out alone in the streets after dusk.

His answer is clear and precise. "It's all about body language," he says with a wink. "If you show that you are scared, you could be in trouble."

Much of this holds good for cricket too. While facing mean men of speed on juicy wickets, if the opposition gets even an inkling that the man facing them does not like it, he will be peppered with the short stuff.

Coach Greg Chappell comprehends the mind games well. He realises the importance of preparing his men for the short stuff. The Indian practice session at the Wanderers indoor nets is an intense affair.

Chappell mans the bowling machine, cranking up speed, and shortening the length. The batsmen get a fair share of the short-pitched offerings. Wasim Jaffer is peppered with plastic balls that climb into his body. The Indians clearly know what to expect.

The Indians want to send the right message on the eve of the first ODI of the five-match series at the Wanderers. Virender Sehwag, with four stitches barely off his ring finger, turns up for practice, although his chances of figuring in the contest are extremely slim. He strokes the ball well too, but there is a question mark whether his injured finger would hold firm while fielding. But then, Sehwag did make a statement by participating in the net session.

Skipper Dravid oozes confidence during the press meet. He had played a typically brave innings at Benoni. He now defended his young batsmen.

"It's a learning experience for the young Indian batsmen just as it is for the South African batsmen on the spinning tracks in India," he says making his point subtly. Mentally, Dravid was not going to concede an inch to the host.

The South Africans have an outdoor training session at Centurion which is a pleasant 35-minute drive from Johannesburg, giving us a glimpse of the breathtaking countryside.

The practice facilities at the Super Sport Park are excellent. This indeed is a venue that soothes one's senses. The pavilion and the office are tastefully decorated, with the achievements of the former cricketers recognised.

This was the arena where India prevailed over Pakistan in a titanic World Cup clash in 2003. Bats signed by all the teams that participated in the competition are given the pride of place.

Meanwhile, the legendary Jonty Rhodes conducts the fielding drills for South Africa. He is still a bundle of energy and enthusiasm.

The South African fielding session is a vibrant affair. The hosts are licking their lips in anticipation after South Africa A's victory over India. Skipper Graeme Smith speaks of respect for the Indians. But one also hears whispers that "this is payback time."

Dravid's men spend a pleasant evening at the Indian High Commission.

Media manager Rajan Nair says the spirit in the camp is high. Only time will tell.

The Indians also watch movies of great sporting tales for inspiration. The side had lacked momentum in the last three months. It seeks to re-ignite the spark.

BCCI treasurer N. Srinivasan and the Board secretary Niranjan Shah are also in the city. This is Srinivasan's first trip to the country. He awaits the face-off at the Wanderers.

The Wanderers is among the cricketing world's great venues. Here the cricketers walk down steep steps from the pavilion while making their way to the ground. This is a ground with a distinct heartbeat and a soul. Like the Eden Gardens, it has got character. It is also called the Bull Ring. In some senses, Dravid had taunted the South Africans the previous day with the words, "We want to take the bull by its horns."

The battle lines are clearly drawn. Rain spoils the show, rather it is a no show with inclement weather preventing a single ball from being bowled in the first match of the MTN ODI series. The crowd, with a fair sprinkling of fans of Indian origin, waits patiently. Some of the spectators, braving the rain, wave flags and banners in the open enclosures. But this is a day when rain does not relent. The match is called off. It's a wet start to the series. But things could hot up pretty soon.