Nothing can be more disquieting than the fear that one may be watching a life coming to an end. It may be premature and even foolhardy to think so but — seeing India go through their motions on a lively Motera wicket at Ahmedabad — the feeling that one may not be just watching an era coming to an end but possibly even Test cricket near its deathbed left one with a nagging, uneasy feeling.
This ageing Test team has already done enough in the last year to be counted among the best in the world. But, in the heat and dust of Motera, the kind of listlessness with which the players approached their cricket somehow suggested their end may be nearer than expected. Will India have to go through a generational shift quicker, swifter than expected? The players seemed lethargic, lost and even disinterested. Whether my reading had to do with the manner in which the Indian batsmen succumbed for so little and so soon or were they really sleepwalking, only time will tell.
The Indian team has been known for its inconsistent performances, but this shocker has come just when we had believed this team had scaled a new peak and was going to be hard to beat.
What is somewhat more disturbing is that we don't know for sure if we are just watching the end of a clutch of outstanding players or if the end of these greats is also going to coincide with the demise of Test cricket as we know it.
Look at the build-up to this series. It has been so low-key that many did not know till the Test began that India and South Africa were going to be locked in a three-match battle.
Day in and day out, newspapers and the TV channels are flooded with ads about the IPL, where a Shah Rukh Khan, a Preity Zinta or an Akshay Kumar get more prominence than the cricketers themselves. With the way IPL is being advertised, one would think that from April 18 India is going to host the World Cup and not an inter-club cricket T20 tournament in which international and Indian stars are going to play.
There has to be something terribly wrong in the order of things when the news of a Test match in India is relegated behind whether or not Shoaib Akhtar will be allowed to play in the IPL.
Since so much money is riding on the IPL, the investors (franchises and their business partners) are bound to project this as the greatest show on earth so that they can lure people to watch it. I understand this is a world fuelled by money but that does not prevent one from being disappointed with the attitude of the Indian board, which does not seem to care that the players have to focus on the Test series right now and not on the IPL.
I've raised this point because after the first Test in Chennai, which was played in energy sapping conditions, the players needed rest so that their minds remained focused on the series. Instead, we found that players spent the short rest period before the second Test advertising for their IPL teams.
In contrast, the South Africans — who are going to play in the IPL circus as well — said no to these shoots. For them, winning the Test series was clearly more important.
If Test cricket was ever in need for an adrenaline-pumping series, 0it was this one. But the way India have played so far has almost taken away the life-support system on which it is surviving at the moment.
In this jostle for time and money, Test cricket is fast losing out. It will need a couple of truly memorable series in the immediate aftermath of the IPL to stay alive.