Proteas Pace Hounds await Indian Test fledglings

Youngsters such as Virat Kohli will miss Sachin Tendulkar's guidance.-PTI

South Africa has an Ally in history - of winning four of the last five home series against India - while India will look at the last two tours in which Tests were won in Johannesburg and Durban, both venues for the current series. Incidentally, India drew the series 1-1 the last time it toured South Africa during the 2010-11 season and that is a fine initial benchmark to emulate, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

The equations between the BCCI and Cricket South Africa may have plummeted from the warm 1990s to the frost that spread over the last few months but irrespective of that, on-field developments have mirrored the fixed template of both teams largely doing well at home and struggling when they don the guest's attire and cross the seas.

The lone exception to this rule was when South Africa won a Test series in India during 2000. It is India's turn to hopefully whip up another exception as M. S. Dhoni's men get set for a twomatch Test series with games in Johannesburg (Dec. 18-22) and Durban (Dec. 26-30), but it will be a tough task as an inexperienced batting line-up has to cope with a Dale Steyn-led South African attack that can intimidate and strike at will.

Zaheer Khan and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni have to don the mantle of mentors.-R.V. MOORTHY

To add to the woes, there is this gaping absence of Sachin Tendulkar, who was a steady, reassuring presence in the Indian dressing room and that means the likes of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma don't have their favourite `Paaji' to talk to and sort out technical issues. It is this unseen mentoring role of Tendulkar, that will be missed the most while the Proteas would press hard to keep their unbeaten record intact at home against India. Yes, the maestro was not in prime form for the last two years but he added stability to the squad and as an Indian player said, "There is a feeling of security when Tendulkar is around."

Between them, Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja, have played just 63 Tests. It is hardly a number when you compare that with the ones clocked by Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman though it has to be admitted that despite their inclusion, India, during its last two significant overseas tours, was whipped into submission both in England and in Australia.

In a sense, the transition period meant that fresh blood had to be infused into the playing eleven and South Africa presents the sternest test to the rookies despite their strong show at home especially in the recent series against the West Indies. Among them, only Kohli has an overseas hundred - the 116 against Australia in Adelaide - while Pujara had a forgettable tour in the land of the Proteas during 2010-11, totting up scores of 19, 10 and 2. Subsequently, he has revealed his intense hunger for runs mostly at home while also finding his voice with two tons during India A's last tour of South Africa, a sojourn in which Rohit, Shikhar and even Suresh Raina slammed tons.

It is not necessarily a bangingagainst- walls exercise because if the Pujaras and the Rohits look back, they will find that men ranging from the celebrated like Dravid to the unheralded like W. V. Raman and Praveen Amre have scored hundreds against an attack that had `White-Lightning' Allan Donald in its ranks during the 1990s. There was also the famous one-two attack that Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin unleashed during an aesthetically stunning 222-run partnership in a losing cause at Cape Town's Newlands during the 1996-97 series.

It is not that as if the current batch lacks the relevant skills but it is about the players emerging unscathed against an attack that is led inarguably by the finest fast bowler in the world now - Steyn. "He is a world class bowler and we all know that. Not many can swing the ball like he does. All you can do as a batsman is to try and upset his length," Kohli said. The biggest batting tragedy in Indian cricket is that Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have fallen off the map. The duo was expected to soften the blow following the exit of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar, but instead India now goes abroad with an under-cooked line-up.

The bowling, meanwhile, has the added weight of a returning Zaheer Khan, who is leaner, meaner and fitter and is expected to spearhead as well as mentor the younger bowlers. How much India can hurt a solid South African batting line-up would all depend on Zaheer striking his rhythm and prising out men like Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers. Among the limited spin attack, understandably so in conditions that favour pace, R. Ashwin has to don the lead role and control the middle passages of play.

Much would hinge on how the two senior-most players in the squad - Dhoni and Zaheer - deflect the pressure off their junior team-mates. Minor verbal sparring has already started with Steyn insinuating that India's 141- run loss in the first one-dayer in Johannesburg, would have scarred the visitors. The added negative backdrop of a shortened tour triggered by the soured relationship between the CSA and BCCI and the emotional upheaval of adjusting to a post-Nelson Mandela era, would mean that South Africa will be fired up to perform. It has the added ally of history - of winning four of the last five home series against India - while Dhoni's men will look at the last two tours in which Tests were won in Johannesburg and Durban, both venues for the current series. Incidentally, India drew the series 1-1 the last time it toured South Africa during the 2010-11 season and that is a fine initial benchmark to emulate.