India sweat on Laxman fitness

With Dravid and Yuvraj out, South Africa will target India's middle-order when the first Test between the world's top-ranked teams gets underway.

NAGPUR // South Africa will target India's middle-order when the first Test between the world's top-ranked teams gets underway this morning. Rahul Dravid, the vastly experienced No 3, and the hard-hitting Yuvraj Singh have been ruled out of the two-match series, while VVS Laxman is struggling to recover from a finger injury.

Dravid sustained a fractured jaw after being struck by a Shahadat Hossain bouncer in the second Bangladesh Test last month that put him out of action for three weeks. Yuvraj is absent with a wrist problem. Subramaniam Badrinath is expected to be handed a debut and Murali Vijay will bat at No 3. If Laxman is ruled out, India will field a second debutant in Rohit Sharma. Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain, knows the weakened India middle-order provides his side with a real chance to draw first blood in the series. He will be keen to remove the openers swiftly and get Sachin Tendulkar to the crease before the lacquer disappears from the new ball.

"Guys like Laxman and Dravid, they are quality players, a huge amount of experience," said Smith. "Not only do they bring experience, they bring calmness to the Indian team. From our aspect it's an opportunity. I think it does put pressure on guys, certainly [Gautam] Gambhir and [Virender] Sehwag. They need to take a little more responsibility. Dravid is really the rock of the lot. The responsibility on Sehwag is crucial."

MS Dhoni, the India captain, believes the potential absence of Laxman, the elegant right-hander who is approaching the 7,000-run mark in Test cricket, provides an opportunity for someone else. "Somebody should step up and do well for the team. So I am just expecting some of the youngsters getting the opportunity to prove themselves and get runs for the side," Dhoni said. India displaced South Africa as the top-ranked Test team after securing a 2-0 victory over Sri Lanka in December, but a 2-0 series victory for the tourists would see them reclaim top spot.

"India holds the No 1 Test ranking in the world and it is a credit to the way they have played," Smith said. "But it is not an issue for us. We have come here to play good cricket. We know if we perform to our level we would be able to put India under lot of pressure." South Africa's preparations for the tour were disrupted when Mickey Arthur, their coach, resigned and the entire selection committee were sacked following the drawn home series against England last month.

"At the moment we have everything to gain on this tour and India has got everything to lose," Smith added. "The opportunity to beat India excites us and if we do that we get the ranking." * With agencies India v South Africa, 8am start, Neo Sport