There is an eerie sense of the unknown ahead of the first Test against South Africa at the Wanderers here on Friday. There is so much at stake. For India as a whole, who seem to be collectively groping blindly through a murky atmosphere for anything that will bring them deliverance and for various individuals, who have points to prove and ghosts to lay to rest.
For Rahul Dravid, the challenges ahead are enormous. He will be coming into this game with almost no practice and while that may not matter for a player of his calibre, it would be playing on his mind. As will, naturally, the need to protect his finger. But these are minor irritants when viewed against his need to score and find, from somewhere, the ability to inspire his beleaguered team-mates to go beyond themselves.
For Virender Sehwag, this will be a chance to prove that he is still second to none at the top in the longer version of the game, while for Sachin Tendulkar, who remarked at the Castrol Cricket Awards on Wednesday night that he was coming to terms with the aging of his body and trying to deal with it and around it as best as he could, this Test series will be another massive test of his genius. He also said he had to meet his own expectations more than anyone else's, but if this intensely competitive individual comes up to scratch in his own eyes, then he will definitely meet with that of others.
For Sourav Ganguly and Greg Chappell, who have warred and veered between winning and losing several minor skirmishes and seem to have called a fragile truce as much for their own sakes as Indian cricket's, this series is probably set to be make or break on several fronts. For both strong-willed, proud men, unwilling to give ground, the stakes are incredibly high.
And even while these individual battles for supremacy are on, there is that larger battle — that of the team's. To deal with all this, the Indians will have to deal more with the demons dancing in their minds than any demons in the pitch or the opposition. The first leg of this tour has been an unmitigated disaster and they would want to start the Tests on a fresh note.
Yet, whatever anyone says about this being a brand new series and the dismal one-day performances having no effect, pointing out the success in the West Indies Tests and India's constantly improving overseas Test record, everyone knows that Indian cricket is at its lowest ebb. Crawling back will be a Herculean task and while the format might have changed, the conditions and the opposition haven't.
The balance is heavily tilted in favour of the hosts and Day One of this Test might set the tone for the rest of the series.
It will go one of two ways. The ghosts of the one-dayers might return with a vengeance or someone up the order will answer the call to arms with something extraordinary.
The pitch traditionally has more than decent bounce and carry, the feature of tracks here in any case.
There are fine cracks but the grass seems brownish and is nicely rolled in to prevent the cracks from opening up too soon.
According to the curator though, the cracks will open up by Day Three and might help someone like Anil Kumble but the South African think-tank dismisses the thought and will likely go in with an all pace attack.
From India's side, the bowling has been doing fairly well and is expected to carry on the good work. They have had the South African top order under the cosh more than once and it's really up to the batsmen to give them enough to bowl out the opposition twice.
The Kookaburra red ball does a bit more while it's new so it would be imperative to get a decent start. The Indian middle order, on paper, is impressive but if they have to face the new ball, things might be tough.
Dravid is returning from injury, Laxman and Ganguly (despite the tour game) haven't been here long enough to acclimatise. That leaves Tendulkar, Sehwag and Jaffer who've been here long enough and played enough (not necessarily scored enough runs) to stand there and fight.
If the top order manages to see off the new ball, if the great Indian middle rediscovers its magic, if India take their catches and bowl in the right areas, then, who knows? But that's a lot of 'ifs' out there.