The Test series against South Africa starting on Wednesday will surely be short, but as things stand it will be a big challenge for India to make it sweet. For starters, the body language of India players has undergone a sea change since they landed in this country over a fortnight ago. The players seem to have mellowed, and their confidence bordering on effervescence has waned following the crushing defeats in the one-day series.
And reality is hurting a bit more than it was expected to. After all, this is a young team that didn't really care about playing any opposition, looking to make a mark free of the 'slow' seniors. But watching a session at the nets provides a good idea of what is going through their minds - the batsmen are mostly preparing to face short deliveries while the bowlers are working on rhythm and right length, trying to copy what Dale Steyn and Co are expected to unleash when the first Test starts.
India are the No 2 ranked Test side. Ideally, the clash against South Africa, the top-ranked team, should be a mouth-watering prospect. This should have been a kind of world Test championship series. Politics may have cut it short, but there is a feeling that had this been a full series, India's reputation may suffer, especially considering the fury the hurt South Africa are unleashing.
Despite the batting talent in their ranks, experts also concede that India are under-cooked. The single biggest challenge for a touring side from the sub-continent is facing up to sheer pace dished out in a sustained fashion, on tracks affording bounce. But after months of playing at home, with few Tests and against ordinary bowling attacks, the batsmen are in a comfort zone; the demand had been more on wristwork to tackle deliveries coming at knee level. The backfoot game key to playing the pull and cut is not honed.
The South Africa series is also the start of a long season that will see India travel a lot. They tour New Zealand, and after the World Twenty20, will head to England, where the last time, in 2011, they were routed 0-4. It would then be on to face a revived Australia. The time India emerged with credit on a major overseas Test tour was here, squaring a three-match series 1-1 in 2010/11. Since then, both their major tours – England and Australia – proved equally disastrous. And since the rout Down Under, and the subsequent retirements of the middle-order trio, this is the first big overseas challenge.
The blame for any big reverse will be laid on the Indian dressing room, but the Indian board's pick-and-choose policy in terms of scheduling would also have played a big role. The manner in which Test series have been scheduled at home seems to be aimed more at protecting the ranking and filling its coffers than helping build confidence while playing away from home. Some former South Africa players still feel the young India should not be harshly judged -- former skipper Kepler Wessels and ex-Proteas paceman Fanie de Villiers feel the tour is too short to make a realistic assessment. But few can justify India not playing a full four-Test series. Bishan Singh Bedi for one has criticised the shortened Test series.
In the ICC world rankings, India are No 1 in ODIs and No. 2 in Tests. The BCCI officials argue that with the India team being the most profitable source of income for any national board, their hands are tied as they try to balance by playing all opponents.
However, what catches the eye is the manner in which India have clung on to the world rankings, especially in Tests.
Besides, the losses in England and Australia, India also lost 1-2 to England at home last winter; those defeats should have hurt their ranking points a lot more.
But the home run has helped. West Indies came for three Tests in late 2011, after the defeat in England, and lost 2-0. The 0-4 hammering in Australia was followed by a visit by New Zealand, who were thrashed 2-0. Although India lost to England at home, the 4-0 sweep against Australia helped them bounce back. And West Indies were chosen for Sachin Tendulkar's farewell series, which ended 2-0 in the hosts' favour.
BCCI official admitted the board wanted to maximise revenue from Tendulkar's farewell series. In fact, Cricket South Africa too was banking on Tendulkar farewell Test. These home series earn India valuable points. The ICC rankings give maximum weightage to games played in the past two years.