Former winners India and South Africa clash in the inaugural match of the ICC Champions Trophy here on Thursday in a pool that almost everyone sees as the tournament's Group of Death. With every game a virtual shootout, both Team India and the Proteas will be eager to make a head start.
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Although history never counts in international cricket, India have a good record against South Africa in the Champions Trophy. India lead 2-0 in head-to-head having won by 95 runs at Nairobi's Gymkhana ground on October 13, 2000 and by 10 runs at Colombo's Premadasa Stadium on September 25, 2002.
With two out of the four battle-hardened teams qualifying for the semifinals, all matches in group B are expected to be closely-fought affairs. Except Pakistan, India, South Africa and the West Indies have won the Champions Trophy at least once each and hence more than just pride will be at stake in the last edition of the tournament that began as the Mini World Cup in Dhaka in 1998.
As World Cup champions, India will have more than reputation to defend in the 50-over format contest. They have not played a limited over international outside the sub-continent in the last 15 months but the two practice matches in four days against Sri Lanka in Birmingham and Australia in Cardiff will give the Indian team management a fair idea of the conditions to confront. (Also see: Pics - Sights of Cardiff, exclusive)
South Africa also arrive with a lot of reputation to protect. They are the world's No. 1 Test team but their ODI fortunes have been scratchy and it showed during the one-off warm-up game they played against a talented Pakistani attack on Monday. At The Oval, South Africa lost by six wickets and the defeat exposed the chinks in a batting line-up without two solid customers, Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith.
Most captains have pooh-poohed their defeats in the practice games. The 15-a-side, bat and field hybrid concept may be good for practice but considerably waters down the competitive edge of a real contest. South African skipper AB De Villiers dismissed the Oval defeat saying: "It's not about the result, it's about what you get out of it. I am sure each guy will stand up when the time is right."
That time will come on Thursday and India will be first big hurdle. Fresh from the T20 Indian Premier League, most Indian players are quickly trying to adjust to the 50-over variety. It's been a test for application and temperament and if the results in the two warm-up games are anything to go by, the feedback is mixed.
When Mahendra Singh Dhoni stepped out of Indian shores he said this Champions Trophy will be a test for the team's junior boys. While a few players automatically select themselves, Dhoni indicated there were berths up for grabs. So far, one man has guaranteed himself a slot in the playing XI and that is Dinesh Karthik.
With back-to-back hundreds under pressure against Lanka and Australia, Karthik is a virtual certainty but his batting position is a matter of conjecture. Dhoni is reluctant to play him as an opener, but it is almost certain that Karthik will gain a small promotion from his customary No. 6 position.
"I am happy to bat at any position. It's up to the team to decide where I fit in," he had said after his unbeaten 106 against Lanka at Birmingham on Saturday. On Tuesday, Karthik scored a 140-ball 146 not out against a quality Australian pace attack after coming in at a time when the Indian top order was back in the pavilion for as less as 55 for five.
Dhoni was full of praise for Karthik, who has paced his innings very well in both practice games. "I think he has earned his place in the side and we'll just have to see who misses out when we play against South Africa. I'd like him to play at the top of the order but we'll see," Dhoni said, probably hinting Rohit Sharma may not be able to hold on to his No. 4 position after scores of 5 and 10.
It is unlikely that India will disturb the opening combination of Murli Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan. Dhoni has been insisting on this right-left duo ever since he flew out of India because both have 'Test' experience and thus the capability of playing long innings, a must to give the middle-order the bandwidth to free their arms in the middle and closing stages of the innings. Holding wickets at the top will be vital.
Given the conditions at the Swalec Stadium here in Cardiff, India will surely opt for five specialist bowlers. That's been Dhoni's time-tested formula and with Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma both making an impression against Australia on Tuesday, the pair should make the cut. Bhuvneshwar Kumar's ability to bat and also move the new ball both ways should complete the three-man pace attack. Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja should be the two spinners.
South Africa are sweating over Dale Steyn's fitness. Against Pakistan at the Oval warm-up, the world's leading pacer sent down five lackluster overs before leaving the field holding his left side. Although the regulations of the warm-up games allow for players to leave the field and return at a later stage, Steyn was not seen in action again.
Proteas media liaison Lerato Malekutu said: "Steyn experienced some tightness in his back, and is currently receiving treatment from the physio. He did not bowl any further in the match as a precautionary measure."
South Africa have to wake up to life with a Kallis and Smith. This pair have been such rock-like figures within the Proteas batting unit for such a long time that there are always fears that it could all come crumbling down in their absence. Much will depend on a Hashim Amla and JP Duminy and of course, their young and inspirational captain, AB De Villiers.