Will India's men of tomorrow stand up?
In the home team's dressing room at The Oval, cricketers in the viewing gallery must keep the company of Thomas Jefferson and Lawrence of Arabia. Or rather, the words they once said, which players can read every time they walk into the area that overlooks the field. It is what Surrey cricket manager Chris Adams set up for his team; during the final Test between England and India at The Oval, only the English could read them.
Jefferson speaks crisply of "mental attitude" 200 years before Powerpoint presentations and corporate motivational talks. But it is what TE Lawrence, archaeologist, scholar, soldier, said that lingers.
"All men dream but not equally," the sign reads. "Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind wake up in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible."
The visiting team at The Oval never gets to read this sign. Had any of the Indians walked past that wall on their Tour de Trauma, they would have realised which category of dreamers their team belonged in.
Now, why the waffling on about dreams? Did Lawrence ever open the batting for Arabia?
Fine, here's reality: over six weeks in England, India lost more than a series and their No. 1 Test ranking. Eight months after a ringing 1-1 away draw against South Africa, India have been handed a whitewash in a four-Test series, their first in 44 years. What they have lost are their moorings as a competitive Test team of world travellers. It does not, of course, mean that India cannot completely turn England, or indeed any other team, inside out in their own yard. If the two teams were to dash across to Asia this week, India could well do so with interest and fury.
Yet the most respected teams are those who dream beyond their own geography. Their imaginations stretch past the strongest and most obvious probability. It is what gave India their most successful decade in Test cricket at the turn of the millennium, mostly without contracts and often with support staff of precisely four.
From the mix of Tendulkar, Kumble, Srinath, Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman came a generation of dreamers who redefined Indian cricket, particularly outside the subcontinent. From the confidence of Test wins overseas, a World Cup final in South Africa, Test series wins in Pakistan, West Indies and England, came the environment that a new generation, of Dhoni, Gambhir, Ishant and Raina, now works and plays in.
The defeat in England is not the end of the world; it is not the end of cricket as India knows it. It is merely a sign of the day after tomorrow in Indian Test cricket. At the moment, it is not good. What Indian cricket, replete with resources and talent, needs most now is a new generation of Lawrence's dangerous men. Not merely men of ability but of a larger appetite. Of the greed to succeed, of the hunger for improvement.
If a few of them emerge from the new selection panel, or from the BCCI itself, the Test team's life will be far easier, methodical and rationally planned (and we will all die happy). For the moment, though, the banana skins that littered the way to the tour of England - an unthinking board, loopy selectors, a World Cup victory that could not really be relished by those who won it, because a seductive seven-week Frankenstein's monster could not be resisted - are not going to go away. Neither will what awaits the Test team in less than six months, the one event they can use to try and repair their reputation with - a tour of Australia.
India's first overseas Test after 4-0 (or what is now called the 0-val), will begin in Melbourne on December 26. In between there is the Champions League Twenty20, whose qualifier, featuring a hopefully robust Gautam Gambhir, begins less than 72 hours after the final ODI against England in Cardiff. MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina, R Ashwin, Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar, Rohit Sharma and Munaf Patel will also resume play within a week. Then there are 10 ODIs - five each against West Indies and England - and three Tests against West Indies at home before the Indians jet off to Australia.
At one stage in this series Andrew Strauss said, "In order to keep improving as a side you've got to keep improving the set-up and sometimes that means different personnel, sometimes it means different methods of preparation." The BCCI has asked for an additional practice match in Australia, but other than that, sorry, boys, looks like you are pretty much on your own.
On the tour of England, India's lack of runs and wickets was quantifiable. The intangible imbalance between those striving to compete and those content to coast was not. Those with the big dreams, even if only for personal excellence, and those with pocket-sized aspirations. It is easy to single out India's most recent dangerous men in Test cricket; it is those from the next generation - the era of plenty - who at the moment are hard to identify.
The best Test sides in the world have always had enough dangerous men. Between them they can pull, push, lift, blaze, and chart the course of every iconic squad's most unforgettable voyages - Lloyd's West Indies, Hussain's England, Ganguly's India, Taylor's and Waugh's Australia, Imran's Pakistan, Ranatunga's Sri Lanka, Howarth's New Zealand, Bacher's South Africa.
England 2011 has established that India's Test cricket must now arm-wrestle with this day after tomorrow.
The degrees of difficulty between the long and the short game are considerable, but the rewards remain far too skewed towards the latter. A player can fake it in short-form cricket but not in Tests. They brutally scrutinise every skill a cricketer may have been born with, developed or dreamt about. Beyond their physical and mental abilities in the craft itself, Test cricket also strips bare over and over again, personality itself. England has done that to every man on the Indian team, and each of them knows, more than a rival or an expert or their own family does, just who he is and where he stands - as batsman, as bowler, as fielder, as captain, as team man.
To lift itself as a Test team beyond England, India require more than their new coach; they will need a collective of individual hunger and ambition. Maybe it will be sparked by a revitalised young leader, maybe by a brat pack of skill and character deeply stung by 4-0.
The tomorrow of Indian Test cricket is about to reveal itself. Not only in terms of runs scored or wickets taken but about who, despite all the hurdles - BCCI, T20, schedules, fatigue, celebrity - can emerge, visibly improved, the greediest of new dreamers. Who have decided - as Edmund Hilary so perfectly understood it - not that they want to be extraordinary, but want to accomplish extraordinary things. If those numbers dwindle, so will India's Test team.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo