South Africa and India enter a five-match one-day international series at Kingsmead on Wednesday with at least half an eye on the Cricket World Cup which starts in Asia next month.
For both teams it will be the last chance to settle on combinations ahead of a global showpiece in which both have special reasons for wanting to shine.
South Africa have yet to reach a World Cup final, despite being among the favourites at every tournament since they surprised the world by reaching the semifinals in their first appearance in 1992.
This will be Graeme Smith’s last chance to lead a winning team in an International Cricket Council event as he will be giving up the one-day captaincy after the World Cup.
Speaking at a recent function to mark 50 days to the start of the World Cup, Smith said: “We are looking to make sure we head into the showpiece with the best preparation possible. The series against India will be our last chance to make sure we are fully prepared.”
At the same function Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni spoke of his dream to lead a successful campaign on home soil, with the final scheduled for Mumbai on April 2.
“Every one of us in the India dressing room wants to lift that cup, not only for ourselves but also for the billions of fans supporting us around the globe.”
Although the squads selected for the series in South Africa are unlikely to differ greatly from the final 15-man parties for the World Cup, fringe players in both camps will want to cement their places.
The competition for places in the Indian squad is likely to be particularly keen as the tourists have a group of 16 players in South Africa, of whom at least three are likely to miss the World Cup because room will almost certainly be found for two key batsmen, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, who are not playing in the current series because of injury.
The South African selectors will be anxious to see whether Pakistan-born leg-spinner Imran Tahir can take the step up to international level. Tahir, newly eligible for South African selection after acquiring citizenship, has been in prolific form in domestic cricket.
He took his total of wickets in five first-class matches for the Dolphins franchise to 42 with a 12-wicket match haul against the Warriors last weekend.
Andrew Hudson, the convener of the South African selectors, announced on Monday that Tahir had been added to the country’s 30-man preliminary World Cup squad in place of batsman Jonathan Vandiar.
“We feel that we need to widen our bowling options,” said Hudson.
Another newcomer seeking to impress is Francois ‘Faf’ du Plessis, a free-scoring batsman, athletic fielder and part-time leg- spin bowler who was the leading run-scorer in South Africa’s domestic 40-overs competition which ended last month.
Although the 14 players in the South African squad have an inside track for World Cup selection they will be well aware that some capable, experienced players, including all-rounders Albie Morkel and Ryan McLaren, could be contenders despite not being picked for the forthcoming series.
A batsman from outside the squad who could take advantage if the batting does not fire against India could be Morne van Wyk, who is in the preliminary squad of 30 and top-scored in a Twenty20 international at the Moses Mabhida football stadium on Sunday on a slow, low pitch - conditions more akin to India than is usual for South Africa.
South Africa: Graeme Smith (captain), Hashim Amla, Johan Botha, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis, Colin Ingram, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Robin Peterson, Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir, Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
India: Mahender Singh Dhoni (captain), Sachin Tendulkar, Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Rohit Sharma, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Praveen Kumar, Munaf Patel, Ravichandran Ashwin, Yusuf Pathan, Piyush Chawla, Shanthakumaran Sreesanth.
Umpires: Brian Jerling (RSA), Simon Taufel (AUS)
TV umpire: Marais Erasmus (RSA)
Match referee: Chris Broad (ENG)
January 12 - Durban (day/night)
January 15 - Johannesburg (day/night)
January 18 - Cape Town (day/night)
January 21 - Port Elizabeth (day/night)
January 23 - Centurion (day)
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