Test for India to stay on top
Let's forget the ICC rankings. Let's look at it this way, similar to how Jarrod Kimber did in his blog. The undisputed best team in the world should have won their last home and away series against every other team, or most of the teams. Neither of India, South Africa or Australia have a big lead on that count. Australia lost their last series in India and at home to South Africa. India lost both in South Africa and Australia. South Africa lost to Australia at home, and drew in India. Australia lost in England, while India and South Africa lost in Sri Lanka.
South Africa, in this equation, are slightly ahead of their two close rivals, having drawn their last series in India. But it's a small lead, which gets offset by their recent drawn home series against England, and also that they haven't toured New Zealand and West Indies in ages. Hence there is no current "best Test team" in the world, and the ICC rankings put India on No. 1 because, well, we need a No. 1.
It is a delicate status quo. Between Saturday and the year-end, it could get blown away, or reinforce itself even more strongly. Australia have been thrown off their perch, but who is ready to take over the mantle? South Africa know they will need a series win in India to have claims to being the best, India know they can't be the best without series wins in either Australia or South Africa, the latter of which they tour later in the year.
As Graeme Smith said soon after landing in India, it's not getting to the top, but staying there that matters. Smith should know. Beating Australia in Australia, and thus becoming No. 1, took so much out of them they are yet to come back to full potential. Want a camel as pet? Better have high doors. There are lessons to be learnt from the displaced No. 1 team: will to win - day in, day out, bloody-mindedness, fear of losing. India, the new No. 1, will do well to start off by ticking one of the boxes first, a home series against South Africa. At least they start off as favourites to extend their statistical lead.
Pace and fire v openers from hell
Again, let's forget the ICC rankings. This is more exciting.
Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir play for the same state and the same IPL side. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel play for the same franchise in South Africa. Sehwag and Gambhir are close friends, Morkel calls himself and Steyn best friends in the team. Sehwag and Gambhir run on intuition, their batting styles compliment each other. Morkel goes for raw pace and bounce, Steyn goes for swing, presenting a varied attack. Sehwag and Gambhir are the best openers in the world, Morkel and Steyn the hottest new-ball pairing going around.
Can we fix the toss for the first Test to ensure we start the series with its biggest selling point? Gambhir and Sehwag v Morkel and Steyn. Morkel knows how to build it too. "It's going to be a very good challenge," he says. "Gambhir and Sehwag have played very well for India. Myself and Dale are pretty new with the new ball, and it will be a big test, especially in Indian conditions. Luckily, the challenge is going to be for them too at the end of this year in South Africa. It's not going to end here." Imagine the first morning of the series, three slips and a gully, a fresh pitch, and Zaheer Khan bowling to Ashwell Prince. What a dampener it will be.
India definitely need to forget the ICC rankings, because the much-dreaded and the much-talked-about transitional phase is upon them. Only for the second time since his debut, Rahul Dravid is missing a Test match, and suddenly, half of the Fab Four is gone. He is not likely to be back for the second either. Not that Yuvraj Singh has established himself at No. 6, but without him, India go with two inexperienced batsmen in the middle order. VVS Laxman is not sure of starting either. If he doesn't make it, there will be two debutants to follow Sachin Tendulkar. Doomsday is not a myth.
Dravid and Laxman are not going anywhere in a hurry, but this brief disappearance will provide us a sneak peak into the future.
Saffers' spin trouble
If India's weak link is the middle order, South Africa will mostly be relying on pace to take wickets. After a tough series against England, Paul Harris didn't have the most desired tour game. Johan Botha wasn't much better either, and he has to depend on his doosra to get wickets. More successful, more feared spinners have been mastered in India, and Harris or Botha - whoever plays - will have exceeded all expectations if he is a factor in the final analysis.
Smith and MS Dhoni are big, strong men, known to carrying their men along with them. They set fine examples to the rest of their team-mates. Dhoni has a dodgy back, a shaky middle order to carry, while Smith has a team troubled by external circumstances, and in foreign conditions. More fitting men can't be found to hold the mace that the captain of the No. 1 team is usually photographed with.
Forever in fashion
Sachin Tendulkar was there when South Africa were readmitted. Jacques Kallis came in soon after. They have seen match-fixing, transformation, heart-breaking World Cup losses, chokes after they got out, countless changes in captaincy, new rules, new clothing, new formats, and they have lived to tell the tale. Don't be surprised if they have more tales to tell after this series, and India's return tour later this year. Thankfully, some things never change.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo