India v South Africa, 1st Test, Chennai March 25, 2008

Captains gear up for a gruelling year of Test cricket

Anil Kumble wants to take it one series at a time © AFP

Anil Kumble's sights are firmly fixed on South Africa but at the back of his mind he's also thinking of the three top teams he will encounter later in the year. Graeme Smith remains totally focused on the challenge at hand but he too couldn't stop mentioning what a 'huge' year this is for him and his team.

Neither captain may admit it now but this series could be the start of a heated battle for No. 2. By this time next year one of these sides, if not both, could even be dreaming higher. India have South Africa, Sri Lanka, Australia and England lined up in the next twelve months. South Africa have an equally challenging itinerary with India, England and Australia to think of. India are currently at No. 2 with South Africa just two points behind in fourth place. A consistent year for either could alter that.

"It will be a first step to ensure we continue the good work that we had done in Australia," Kumble said. "We have a lot of Test cricket coming up this year so in that regard this is the beginning of what will be a good long season for Test cricket.

"Getting to No. 1 is a huge incentive. For some of the senior players, in terms of their individual achievements, I think everyone has achieved whatever is possible on the cricket field," he said. "So as a unit it is important to ensure that Indian cricket moves forward and we have that opportunity in front of us.

"So in that sense if we win this series it will definitely give us a bit more of a lead in keeping that [No. 2] spot. Having said that we would like to take it one series at a time."

Smith too admitted that it was the start of a season where his side would face three of the stiffest challenges in world cricket. "It's an occasion we've been looking forward to," he said. "And it's the start of what is basically the three biggest challenges in world cricket, all away from home [India, England and Australia]. It's something we're really looking forward to, playing our brand of cricket and executing it in the next five days. Mentally we're prepared."

South Africa have shown they can adjust well to the subcontinent. A series win here will cap a hat-trick of triumphs in this region and they have shown the ability to weather the sapping heat and humidity. "I think you've got to have the team capable of winning series away from home and I believe we have the team," he said. "We have an experienced side and obviously also have some players coming to India for the first time. So it will be interesting to see how they go. You just have to make things happen for yourself here."

Chennai, Ahmedabad and Kanpur may provide them with the sternest test. So sweltering is the heat that visiting players often talk of 'losing focus' at the end of the day. "Chennai generally is a pretty hot place, we knew it was going to be warm," Smith said. "Obviously for us, for both teams, it's the heat. How we manage through the next five days is going to be crucial. I'm pretty sure the heat is going to be a factor at some stage in this game."

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo