India look to maintain Test supremacy
It will be a battle for world supremacy when an injury-hit India, determined to protect is number one Test team's status, take on second-placed South Africa in the first of the two-match series starting in Nagpur on Saturday.
While a series victory will consolidate India's position at the top of the ICC Test ranking, even a drawn series would be enough for the hosts to retain their top slot, which would entitle them to $ 175,000 and the coveted ICC Test Championship mace.
Image: Team India during a practice session
Injury worries for Dhoni
The team, however, goes into the contest with their middle order in disarray, following injuries to the dependable Rahul Dravid and the dashing Yuvraj Singh, both of whom have been ruled out of the series.
The cheekbone fracture, which Dravid sustained during the Bangladesh tour, has created a rare void at the number three position as the right-hander has missed only one Test, previous to this one, since his 1996 debut.
To make matters worse, there is also uncertainty over seasoned middle-order batsman VVS Laxman who, even though named in the squad, is yet to recover completely from the finger injury sustained in Bangladesh.
If Laxman fails to pass the fitness test, India would be forced to field two debutants in Rohit and S Badrinath and another rookie batsman in Murali Vijay in the playing XI.
Image: MS Dhoni
Sachin will be the key
In Dravid and Yuvraj's absence, Sachin Tendulkar will have the additional burden of guiding the less-experienced Indian middle-order line up.
The batting great, however, will have the backing of skipper Dhoni, who is in phenomenal form.
Openers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir too will play a crucial role and will be expected to give India a solid start.
Image: Sachin Tendulkar and Amit Mishra
Onus will be on bowlers to deliver
Luckily for India, the bowling department sports a healthier look in the presence of pace spearhead Zaheer Khan and back-in-form Ishant Sharma.
Although S Sreesanth is also on the injured list, Ishant seems to have rediscovered his old rhythm to a large extent and that bodes well for the tough battle ahead.
Zaheer and Ishant are expected to be the only two new ball bowlers in the Indian line-up, while Harbhajan Singh will lead the spin department in the company of either leg-spinner Amit Mishra or left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha.
Image: Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra
Proteas look confident
South Africa, on the other hand, are high on confidence sky high following a series-leveling victory over England in Johannesburg.
Notwithstanding a small problem in the opening pair, South Africa boasts of a formidable batting line up.
Makeshift opener Ashwell Prince has a dubious record in his three previous innings here, scoring just 68 runs but the 32-year-old left-hander is certain to start the South African innings along with skipper Graeme Smith.
But in the presence of hugely experienced Jacques Kallis, the Proteas have a dependable one-down batsman who has a Test average of 50-plus from 81 matches.
AB de Villiers, who scored a classy double hundred when South Africa won the Test at Ahmedabad on their previous visit, exciting Jean Paul Duminy and veteran wicket-keeper batsman Mark Boucher will be in-charge of the middle-order.
Image: South African team during a warm up session