India, South Africa set for absorbing finale at Eden Gardens

A desperate India will look to hit back at South Africa in the decisive second and final Test starting on Sunday after suffering a humiliating defeat in the opening tie.

India’s reputation as the number one Test side in the world took a massive blow after they lost the first Test in Nagpur by an innings and six runs to the second-ranked Proteas.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men need a series-levelling win at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata to stop South Africa from snatching the coveted ranking.

India’s hopes received a timely boost when key middle-order batsman Venkatsai Laxman was cleared to play after having recovered from a finger injury.

With star batsmen Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh ruled out at the start of the series with injuries, Laxman was sorely missed in Nagpur as India crashed for 233 and 319 in reply to South Africa’s 558-6 declared.

Laxman, 35, has scored 6,993 runs in 109 Tests at an average of 45.70 with 14 centuries.

India were forced to play rookie wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha as a specialist batsman in Nagpur after Rohit Sharma, the first-choice replacement for Laxman, got injured just before the toss.

“We definitely missed some important players due to injuries,” said Dhoni after suffering his first Test defeat since taking over as captain in 2008.

“That pushed us to the back foot. Injuries can cause a bit of panic in the dressing room.

“It was a test of our bench strength. So I won’t complain, I’ll only say that we were completely outplayed by South Africa.”

India’s bowling attack also lacked firepower, with pace spearhead Zaheer Khan and frontline off-spinner Harbhajan Singh paling in comparison to their South African rivals, Dale Steyn and Paul Harris.

Steyn, with a match haul of 10-108, underlined his reputation as the leading fast bowler in the world, while left-arm spinner Harris proved effective with three vital wickets in the second innings.

During their last series in India in 2008, South Africa won the second Test in Ahmedabad by an innings and 90 runs to take the lead in the three-match series after the first match was drawn.

India drew the series on an under-prepared wicket in Kanpur, raising fears that a similar ploy may be used at the Eden Gardens.

South Africa’s coach Corrie van Zyl, however, said his team will not be intimidated, whatever the nature of the wicket.

“Mentally, the South African team is better prepared than they were in 2008,” said van Zyl, who took over as interim coach from Mickey Arthur just before the start of the India tour.

“I won’t say it will be a minefield, but I do expect something that will help the Indian team. We know that if the first Test was a challenge, then the second Test is going to be a bigger challenge.”

The Kolkata Test will be followed by three One-Day Internationals in Jaipur (February 21), Gwalior (February 24) and Ahmedabad (February 27).

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