JOHANNESBURG - The odds seem stacked against India as they prepare to take on South Africa in their first Test series since the retirement of batting icon Sachin Tendulkar. The first of two Test matches starts at the Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg on Wednesday, a ground which should suit South Africa's formidable fast bowling attack.
India have had minimal opportunity to adjust to South Africa's fast, bouncy pitches. On a tour controversially shortened to the minimum three one-day internationals and two Tests, they were bowled out for 217 and 146 in the first two one-day games and did not bat in the final match because of rain.
A planned two-day match against a South African Invitation XI was abandoned without a ball bowled. Under the original itinerary announced by South Africa, but rejected by India, the tourists would have played in two Twenty20 internationals, seven one-day internationals and two two-day games before playing the first Test. India have won their most recent six Test matches but all were played at home. They have not played a Test outside India since January 2012 when they were beaten 4-0 in Australia to extend to eight their losing streak away from home. Before that they lost by the same margin in England.
South Africa have gone unbeaten in 13 series in their ascent to the top of the International Cricket Council rankings but their most recent two series against second-ranked India, away in 2009/10 and at home the following season, have ended tied at 1-1. South Africa boast a stable batting order and a formidable pace attack.
AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla are first and second in the Test batting rankings, with Graeme Smith and veteran Jacques Kallis also in the top 12. India's highest-ranked batsman is Cheteshwar Pujara, at six, while Virat Kohli and captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni are 20th and 21st. Kohli is the favourite to fill the number four batting slot held for the better part of two decades by Tendulkar.
It is a similar situation in the bowling rankings, where South Africa's Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander fill the top two spots with Morne Morkel, the third member of a feared fast bowling trio, at number 12.
The only Indian bowlers in the top 20 are spinners Ravichandran Ashwin (fifth) and Pragyan Ojha (ninth).
Spin bowlers are unlikely to play a major role at the Wanderers and Ashwin was ineffectual in the one-day games, with his solitary wicket coming at a cost of 169 runs, while he conceded 6.03 runs an over. One of India's selection dilemmas will be whether to play the recalled left-arm fast bowler Zaheer Khan.
The 35-year-old Khan has not played an international match since the third Test against England in Kolkata in December last year but he has an excellent record against South African captain Smith, who he has dismissed six times in Tests and six times in one-day internationals. Smith has a patchy record against left-arm pace bowlers but in his most recent Test innings he scored 234 in Dubai against a Pakistan attack spearheaded by left-armers M Irfan and Junaid Khan. In an unusually wet South African summer, the weather could play a role. Thundershowers are predicted for all five days of the first Test.
SOUTH AFRICA: Graeme Smith (captain), AB de Villiers (vice-captain, wkt), Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Dean Elgar, Imran Tahir, Jacques Kallis, Rory Kleinveldt, Morne Morkel, Alviro Petersen, Robin Peterson, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Thami Tsolekile (wkt).
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain, wkt), Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, M Shami, Ravindra Jadeja, Zaheer Khan, Ambati Rayudu, Wriddhiman Saha (wkt), Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha.