Buoyant South Africa wary of Test surfaces
The difference between a happy team and an unhappy one does not extend much further than this: the former are victors, the latter are vanquished.
"What has helped is that we've been winning. If we'd been losing, I'd have told you it is quite tough," Faf du Plessis said when asked whether the length of the India tour was starting to get to him.
South Africa are on their longest-ever visit to India - 72 days - have already seen ten different cities and touched all four corners of the country, and the best bit is only just beginning. By now, they should be starting to feel travel-weary, especially those who have been on the tour throughout, which is much of the senior core; Du Plessis, AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Imran Tahir are five of the six players who are in all three squads (Kagiso Rabada is the sixth) but all of them are "feeling fresh".
The team's two-day Goa detour, which gave them "time to sit by the pool and catch a tan" as du Plessis put it, would have helped but largely, their mindset is influenced by having tasted that winning feeling. Twice. And they know it's up to them to ensure they earn a full house.
"We've played really good cricket but we understand that Test cricket is still going to be the hardest challenge with the wickets deteriorating and suiting India even more," du Plessis said. "But we've practised well, we've planned well and we're really hungry to play Test cricket."
South Africa's homework has included intensive examinations of how to deal with the conditions they are likely to be confronted with. They are expecting what du Plessis called "the worst" rank turners which will spin from day one and may leave the game all over by day three.
In preparation, the batsmen have been tightening their techniques, the spinners have been coming up with "plans to be attacking", and wicketkeeper Dane Vilas has been gearing up to prove himself in tricky conditions. At Monday's training session, Vilas practised as normal, then standing at a sort of middle distance - not quite as far as he would be for a fast bowler but not as close as he would be for a spinner while Michael Hussey, South Africa's batting consultant, threw to fitness trainer Greg King who was batting with a stump - and then Vilas did the drill standing up to the stumps.
Other interesting bits of the session including Stiaan van Zyl bowling extensively while JP Duminy watched from a distance. All indications are that Duminy, who is carrying stitches from his hand laceration, will not be fit to play the first Test - which will mean South Africa's holding overs have to come from somewhere else, like van Zyl or Dean Elgar.
South Africa will still mull over the possibility of a second specialist spinner but may not want to leave out any of their premier pacemen, especially as Morne Morkel seems to be returning to full fitness. Morkel bowled in the nets from the longest run-up of any of his team-mates and did not appear to be holding anything back.
Morkel's availability will be important to bulk up South Africa's experienced contingent, which is at risk of being overtaken by youth. The current mix sits at about 50-50 and the outcome of this series will largely rest with how the more senior 50% perform. "If you want to win series, especially away from home, you need your leadership to perform," du Plessis said. "It's not always the whole leadership group that performs, but as long as the majority put their hand up. We're a group of senior players who demand that from ourselves. We've got really high standards."
That much has been evident over the last nine years, in which South Africa have not lost a single series away from home and in the process established themselves as the No.1-ranked Test team, something they are keen to hold on. "We've been No. 1 for a period of time so we are looking forward to it - we are seen as the best and there's a lot of pride that comes with that," du Plessis said. And a lot of happiness, which India might be lacking at the moment.
The hosts only arrived in Chandigarh on Monday, after many of them attended Harbhajan Singh's wedding reception over the weekend, and will begin training on Tuesday, which puts them a day behind South Africa in planning terms. They may have needed the time off to lick their wounds after back-to-back limited-overs series defeats to South Africa, and growing irritation with their own groundsman.
India are upset that home-ground advantage has not benefited them yet, although it seems everyone including South Africa expect that to change during the Tests.
But it seems South Africa, as they did when the England camp became embroiled in an ugly dressing room fight during the 2012 tour, may be experiencing schadenfreude - "I don't think India would be complaining about the wickets if they were winning," du Plessis said. They would know any distracting unhappiness in the Indian camp might be the difference between who ends up as victor and who is vanquished.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent