Time for the stars to step up

2010-12-31 00:00

SOUTH Africa will begin a massive new year with a decisive, final Test against a resurgent India on Sunday.

Far from being the usual, dead-rubber of a final Test that it usually is against Asian opposition, this one will have plenty on the line.

At 1-1, the series is perfectly poised for one of the many superstars on offer to take this game by the scruff of the neck and win it for their side.

India, after being humbled in Pretoria, have come full circle, flaring at the nostrils, and playing bold cricket after looking so timid in the series opener.

Plenty has been written and said about the impact of the mercurial Zaheer Khan, but skipper MS Dhoni deserves just as much credit.

If his press conferences are anything to go by, the Indian captain appears to confront every challenge with a smile and a sense of perspective.

After the first innings mauling at Centurion, he turned around and said it was important for his side to find some momentum — however small — to take to Durban for the second Test.

His 90 and Sachin Tendulkar’s ton did that, and showed the others that runs could be made against the Proteas pace juggernaut.

“Of course we have a very experienced top six, so the good thing is that when one individual doesn’t contribute, someone else puts their hand up,” Dhoni said after Tendulkar had a quiet time of it in Durban, but VVS Laxman stood like a giant on a pitch that demanded respect.

“Laxman played a very special innings, and it was a pity that he couldn’t get his 100,” Dhoni added.

Indeed, anyone of Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag or Rahul Dravid may yet find their best form. That is the danger of playing the Indians, and Dhoni knows it.

And if the Proteas didn’t, they certainly do now.

Where South Africa may have gone wrong is in the assumption that India would cave in under the pressure of going one down.

If anything, Dhoni embraced it.

“I think I have said it enough that we are slow starters, and we play better under pressure.”

The pressure has shifted to the other change room now, and Graeme Smith will be demanding a reaction from his big guns.

It is a rarity for all three of Smith, Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla to fail in the same match, and a number of decisions also went against the home side.

But, as with most things in life, you make your own luck.

India were bolder in their approach, more decisive in their plans, and the chips fell their way.

What is scary is that they started on the back-foot again, after Dhoni had lost yet another toss.

“It wasn’t as crucial as Centurion, but it would be nice to win one soon,” said a man who has won just one of his last 13 coin flicks.

Whatever pitch groundsman Evan Flint produces, the Indians look like they have their bases covered.

The key could be the battle of the spinners, with Harbhajan Singh streets ahead of Paul Harris.

The “Turbanator” had a strangling effect when he wasn’t chipping in with wickets, while Harris continues to be played with near disdain by the Indian masters.

If Flint leaves a bit more grass on the track, the Proteas top-order will know that the likes of Ishant Sharma, the fiery S. Sreesanth and, of course, Khan, will be just as eager to have a go on it.

It could be a shoot-out between the respective batting line-ups.

The Indians, most of them probably playing a Test for the last time on these shores, will want to finish with some style in a country where they have never lived up to their considerable talents.

South Africa, stung by a third straight loss in Durban, will not want to make it three series in a row that they have failed to win.

In a year where a World Cup lies in wait, Smith and company have to set a winning tone from the very beginning.

The “choker” tag was whispered by mischievous, visiting scribes after the Proteas lost the plot in Durban.

In matches that matter, this year more than ever, the Proteas need to show an ability to close the deal.

They have an opportunity to do so in this match.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

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