India can face challenge on front foot
Andreas isn't happy that our car doesn't stop at his security check-point, instead driving right into the compound of the stunningly beautiful SuperSport Park in Centurion, the venue of the first Test. He looks like a security guard who has seen it all, one who's kept various kinds of people from entering his ground. It has been overcast all day, and a slight drizzle has made it cold for a summer day. Not as cold as Andreas, though.
"You didn't ask for my permission before entering, now you are not allowed to go into the stadium" he says, pointing towards where the accreditation pass would have been - had there been one. "Okay," we say, "let's step out of the compound again, and then ask for your permission." However, he can't keep the act up for long, and starts laughing. And then he says, "We are going to beat you, boss," pointing to a board featuring Dale Steyn and Ashwell Prince, saying. "Pure Protea. 100% South African."
"Pure Protea," repeats Andreas, and in the friendliest of manners, leads us on a tour of the ground. The ground itself is a pretty sight, with its grass banks, old-fashioned bars with wooden benches, the barbeques, the red benches in the press box, the old dressing room in the corner that is not used anymore, and the feel of the breeze going right across the open turf. South Africa cannot be inhospitable, else it wouldn't be hosting so many top sporting events. Even Andreas has become a friend now, and he will be bought beers if - as he says - South Africa are going to beat India, boss. Warm hosts as they might be, the South Africans will bring a cold edge when they host the No. 1 side in the world.
And India are not expecting anything less. The advertisements say the South Africans are waiting; the same can be said of the Indians. India know this tour will define how the team is seen. They know that as long as they are not swept 3-0 they will hang on to their No. 1 ranking. They also know how seriously their No. 1 ranking will be taken if they perform abysmally here. They know it has never been less about rankings.
In an interview with ESPNcricinfo recently, Gary Kirsten, India's coach, said his side didn't need to justify its No. 1 position, but also that the "Test series [against South Africa] will be a defining moment" for the team. He said this team, if it won the series, could well become the greatest Test side to come out of the country. Without doubt, given Australia's current form, beating South Africa in South Africa remains the biggest challenge for this Indian team.
A measure of how big a challenge this Test series is can be made from how this is a personal challenge for almost every individual in the side, at least the batting unit. Gautam Gambhir has returned to form through the series against New Zealand, but this will be the truest test of his technique since his remarkable comeback to the Indian side. There will be seam movement, and there will be constant bouncers, the kind Morne Morkel bowled to him in Nagpur to get him out twice in one day.
Rahul Dravid knows that every failure for him is as good as three for a younger batsman. Is he still the man for the situations that call for the most determined of efforts, mentally and technically? There won't be a better time than an overcast morning and a bouncy pitch come Thursday morning to prove this.
VVS Laxman has saved and won matches he had no business winning and saving, but he knows he hasn't scored a century in South Africa and it's a record that could do with some setting straight.
The last time Suresh Raina came here for a full tour - albeit a long time ago, and he has succeeded in the IPL here - he was sent back mid-tour, ruthlessly exposed during ODIs played on testing tracks. That drop and a subsequent injury have been the lowest points of his career. He has come back a mentally stronger cricketer and, with a few months to go for the World Cup, he will badly want to conquer the country that effectively cost him a place in the previous World Cup.
The bowling unit, though, will be looking forward to this series. For close to two years they have been toiling in subcontinent conditions. The trio of Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth in fact are the reason why just producing green-tops is not enough to assure South Africa of victory. Over the last five years, the Indian fast bowlers, along with their Pakistani counterparts have best exploited the helpful conditions here.
The other troika, the coaching staff, will probably draw much more attention - not least because they are South Africans. Every player in the side swears by Kirsten's methods - and it has shown in the results - but the same cannot be said of the bowling coach, Eric Simons. While Paddy Upton's mental conditioning work is much more intangible, India's bowling hasn't quite gone from strength to strength under Simons. It is often said that he doesn't quite know the subcontinent conditions well enough, and that spans the sample of his work with the bowlers. In South Africa, in conditions he should know better than most, the room for benefit of doubt will be minimal.
That said, this is the most confident Indian side to have travelled to this side of the Indian Ocean. They know a lot can go wrong, but they also know a lot can go right. They are obviously feeling good as a team, and also as a unit that can do well in crisis situations. They have become better tourists over the years. South Africa is not that foreign either: they have played a World Twenty20 here since their last tour, and most of their players have played the IPL and the Champions League. And despite the individual challenges to the batsmen, they are perhaps the best Test batting unit going around right now. The bowlers cherish helpful conditions, which if delivered as promised, should be as lethal in their hands as in the South Africans'.
Given the constraints of Indian cricket, with its commercial commitments, the team has also prepared the best that it could. It will help that they have stayed unbeaten through a home season for the second time in the last three years. This is not quite the Final Frontier as the admen would have it - they still have Australia to beat in Australia - but there is a sense that all the hard work of the last two to three years could come to nought if they lose comprehensively. The Indian team, however, evident at least from what Kirsten said, is not thinking about how to not lose, but how to win. While all of that pans out - we're waiting.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo