India gear up for tough South African challenge

Nagpur: A jittery India will have to find the right combination and plug their loopholes as they go into the tough World Cup Group-B encounter against South Africa here on Saturday with the dodgy form of some of their key players being a concern.

After a couple of not-so-convincing performances against Ireland and the Netherlands respectively, Mahendra Singh Dhoni`s much vaunted batting line-up is expected to regroup as they face the mighty South Africans, who on the other hand would be itching to get back to winning ways after losing to England by six runs.

Although India have been unbeaten in the four matches so far, the only time they have been really put to test was against England in Bangalore last month when they could only manage to tie the game after scoring an imposing 338.

Tomorrow`s match will be an important one for India as their batsmen will face the current best new ball pair of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.

The explosive opening pair of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag have got the starts in most of the matches but have failed to capitalise on those. Both have a century each under their belt but would like to get another big one before the knock-out stage gets undwerway.

Tendulkar was not a part of the Indian side that lost the One-day series against the Proteas 2-3 prior to the World Cup.

Interestingly, when Tendulkar last played in an ODI against South Africa in Gwalior last year, he scored the historic double hundred.

If the maestro can achieve half of what he did that day, the South African bowlers would have a hard day on the shirtfront Jamtha strip where batting first is the order of the day.

Sehwag began with a bang against Bangladesh but hasn`t exactly been spectacular against other sides. The same is the case with Gautam Gambhir, who has been frittering it away after getting starts.

It will be stern test for the middle order also where Yuvraj Singh with back-to-back 50s has shown some touch. But skipper Dhoni has been scratchy and Yusuf Pathan has blown hot and cold.

The Irish and the Dutch didn`t exactly have the score to test the strength of the middle-order, which Graeme Smith`s men might just do.

The concern with the bowling department still remains with skipper`s fascination for leg-spinner Piyush Chawla.

However with three left-handers in South African ranks (Smith, Jean Paul Duminy and Robin Peterson), there is a possibility that off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin may get the nod ahead of Chawla.

If Dhoni`s statement about Ashwin being "mentally strong" is anything to go by, the Tamil Nadu offie may just get a chance alongside Harbhajan Singh. While Zaheer Khan will be the premier pacer, Ashish Nehra who came back against Holland is the favourite to share the new ball with him.

But Munaf Patel who has a good record against South Africa, will definitely keep Dhoni interested.

For the South African side, the bad news is leggie Imran Tahir`s broken left-thumb for which he has been advised 10 days of complete rest. However, the team management may just take a chance since the injury is not in the right thumb.

In case Tahir doesn`t play, then Johan Botha is likely to replace the Pakistan-born spinner.

Smith and his boys will be desperate to shed the chokers tag off their backs. Also the Jamtha ground will bring back happy memories for the Proteas when they walloped India by an innings and six runs in a Test match last year.

Although it`s a different format, seven among those who played in that particular Test match (Smith, Amla, De Villiers, Kallis, Duminy, Steyn, Morkel) are likely to feature in the first XI tomorrow.

Steyn, who rocked the Indian batting with a 10-wicket match haul, will be hoping to repeat that powerhouse performance.

If Steyn hits the rhythm, he will be more than a handful for the Indian batsmen, not to forget Morkel.

Even Hashim Amla, who has been India`s nemesis will like to make matters worse for the Men in Blue, as an intriguing contest is on the cards.

The squads:

India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt/wk), Virender Sehwag (vc), Sachin Tendulkar, Ravichandran Ashwin, Piyush Chawla, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Virat Kohli, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, Yusuf Pathan, Suresh Raina, S Sreesanth, Yuvraj Singh.

South Africa: Graeme Smith (capt), Hashim Amla, Johan Botha, AB de Villiers (wk), Jean-Paul Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Imran Tahir, Colin Ingram, Jacques Kallis, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Robin Peterson, Dale Steyn, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Morne van Wyk (wk).

Umpires: Ian Gould (England) and Simon Taufel (Australia); TV umpire: Billy Doctrove (West Indies).

Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle (Sri Lanka).

Match starts: 1430 hrs (IST).