India's last bit of pride at stake
After India lost the Kolkata Test, the first time they have lost two in a row at home since 1999-2000, the first question MS Dhoni was asked at the press conference was: "How bad will it get before it gets better?" Dhoni has spoken to the press for close to 25 minutes since then, and all you can gather from his statements is he wished he knew how bad it will get before it gets better. For all you know, he might not even be there when it gets better.
Dhoni is making all the right noises - about not running away from the responsibility, about this being a true test of character, about enjoying the struggle, about the high spirits - but around him the world is falling apart. A former selector is saying Dhoni had - despite failures - reached a stature in the BCCI that even all five of them couldn't remove him based on performance. There are many unnamed sources besides, making many speculations about the team unity. It is difficult to lead a side at such times.
And what a side he is leading. Two batsmen fighting for their career, one golden boy losing his shine, one debutant at No. 6, one limited-overs spinner finding it hard to lead a Test attack, a fast bowler whose "unluckiness" has become a matter of ridicule, and another debutant fast bowler or a spinner making his way into the Test side with a stellar first-class average of 54.30 this season.
Between their last series defeat at home, in 2004-05, and now, India have been down in series, but it has hardly ever been this dire. The desperate part is that this is not a case of a good side being outplayed in consecutive Tests. If you are underperforming, there is hope you will come out of it. This is an ordinary side playing to its potential. Times are so bad even Suresh Raina is being reported to have offered his services as a Test opener. India will need to play extraordinary cricket - which it will find near impossible to repeat in the future - or England will have to play poorly for this series to be drawn.
A day before the Test, Dhoni said it was good that there weren't many options left. "In a way it's a good situation to be in where we have nowhere to go. We have to do well in this game." Which makes you wonder why they didn't feel the same when series in England and Australia were slipping away. It is worse for Dhoni because this is a home series. Dhoni has never lost a home Test series. And home series is the last bit of pride India have left in Test cricket.
What a time then for Ajinkya Rahane to be favoured for a Test debut. He has waited on the bench for months, when the going wasn't this tough. He has seen India stubbornly go back to Test failures - first Raina and then Yuvraj Singh - when he was in line for a debut. Now he gets it when not winning the next Test will be India's lowest point in Test cricket since they lost 2-0 to South Africa in 1999-2000.
And if India play two quicks, there is another debut guaranteed - either Ashok Dinda or Parvinder Awana. Considering they, and Ravindra Jadeja and Piyush Chawla, were playing Ranji Trophy two days before the match, big risks are unlikely. Rahane and Chawla are frontrunners as replacements for Yuvraj and Zaheer Khan right now.
A drawn final Test is not an option, and 20 wickets on a decent batting pitch a distant thought. Accordingly the pitch in Nagpur has received no water for two days. Despite what happened in Mumbai, a square turner with three spinners in the side remains India's best chance. How they will love to win the toss and watch Virender Sehwag have one of his days.
Sehwag aside, it will take a lot of painstaking improvement for India. Batsmen used to playing like millionaires might need to play like paupers, not going after boundaries. Sachin Tendulkar showed he can do it. Bowlers will need discipline and patience, and much more effort to turn the ball. Fielding will have to improve so much you rub your eyes in disbelief to make sure these are the same men as you saw in Kolkata.
In short, Sehwag aside, India need a miracle over the next five days. Possibly even three. And they will know a miracle alone won't be enough. It will have to be followed by honest introspection. After all, there is one Test series to come between now and IPL, when India will shine again.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo