At Wanderers,they say when you win the toss,look up and not down before deciding what you want to do. MS Dhoni and his boys,however,have only stared at bad news so far on this tour. Whether theyve looked up at the murky skies or the pitches under their feet,theres only been trouble in sight.
To the extent that last week,despite the sunny ambience in Benoni,the visitors were denied their only shot at match practice. And its likely that Dhoni will not know where to look if he does calls it right on Wednesday.
There will be other things on his mind too as he walks to the centre alongside counterpart Graeme Smith in Johannesburg. The first Test against South Africa will be Dhonis 50th as captain. With this he will become the clear leader in terms of skippering India in the longer format,going past Sourav Ganguly with whom he was locked on 49.
The landmark might not really linger in the forefront of his thoughts. What will,though,is his recent overseas record,the 4-0 hammerings that were meted out to his team in England and Australia the last two Test series that India played away from home even if he insisted on not carrying any excess baggage from the past into the two-match series.
Interestingly,after 49 Tests,Dhonis success rate as captain is much better than Gangulys. But the last time they won a series outside India was back in Bangladesh around four years ago. Dhoni has only two major Test match wins outside the subcontinent to boast,ones in Hamilton and the other in Durban,during Indias last tour to this part of the world.
It was under Ganguly that India began dispelling myths about their struggles abroad. Gangulys first Test as captain outside the subcontinent came in these shores,back in 2001. This might already be Dhonis second series as skipper in South Africa,but in many ways,with the batting stalwarts in particular having ridden into the sunset,Wednesday will be a new beginning of sorts. And like Ganguly,the onus might be on Dhoni to engineer a reconnaissance with a fledgling team,which possesses its own set of young stars.
For starters,he will have to do so by first setting his record straight with the bat in South Africa,an average so far of 31.44 in five Tests with only one knock of note a counterattacking 90 in the loss at Centurion in 2010. Here,he will be the most experienced batsmen in the young squad. And Dhoni admitted that his role was not limited this time to providing the backbone to the batting line-up.
When the seniors were around,you didnt have to worry much about preparation. But with the new set of players at times you have to guide them. At the same time,not getting too technical, he said.
Unlike the Indians,the South Africans have already laid all their cards on the table by naming the final XI on the eve of the Test. Despite many suggestions about the hosts bombarding the Indians with a four-prong pace attack,they have decided to retain leg-spinner Imran Tahir. His role,however,will only come into play if the visitors somehow manage to get past the likes of Dale Steyn,Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel on a pitch that according to the curator will behave true to its nature pace and bounce.
India,in all likelihood,will field six batsmen,which will mean a maiden overseas outing for Ajinkya Rahane,with Virat Kohli expected to bat at the No.4 spot left vacant by the exit of Sachin Tendulkar.
Both teams enter the series with identical 6-0 victory margins on their own soil. Having said that,Smith did believe that the Wanderers does give an advantage to the opposition,or all fast bowlers for that matter,in the first innings. Indias big hope on that front will be the returning Zaheer Khan,who plays his first Test in 12 months,along with Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma,buoyed after his spell of 4/40 in Centurion. The visitors best bet could be winning the toss and giving their quicks the first shot at the Wanderers wicket. Dhoni will be keen on that,and is unlikely to look up or down before taking that call.
For Smith,the only Test skipper to have led his country in more than 100 Tests,this will be an opportunity to fortify the Proteas stand as the No.1 team in the world. And on a personal front,to re-establish his position as the premier opener in South Africa,despite the looming threat of Quinton de Kock.
You see the Ashes now and it puts into perspective the kind of performances that we have been able to put in over a lengthy period of time. Ultimately it is about our legacy. We need to take care of that and hopefully set standards that we can be proud of, he said.
It would be unfair to say that Dhonis legacy is at stake over the next two weeks. Under him,Indian cricket has reached unprecedented heights,from World Cup wins in both shorter formats to the No.1 summit in Test cricket. If anything,the two Tests in South Africa will be Dhonis best chance for rectifying assumptions around the cricket world that his team isnt the same force when taken away from their comfort zone.
Day 1: Live on Ten Cricket,2pm