No warm-up leaves India's welcome cold
South Africa makes you feel welcome in many ways. At the OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg, there's a big portrait of Nelson Mandela with the football World Cup. You check in at the hotel, and they say Ulwamkelo (Welcome in Xhosa). The Ndebele say Siyaalemukela, the Sotho say Kamogelo. The Indian cricket team get a grand reception, the best training facilities and a South African to coach them. However, come match day, India would have been kidding themselves to expect a welcome too different to what they got.
Once the ground was dried and the toss was won, out charged Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, with the holiday crowd (celebrating, ironically the Day of Reconciliation) behind them. A brief hug was exchanged as they decided their ends, and then came pace and fire. Bouncer after bouncer followed from Morkel's arm, and the crowd bayed for blood. They sang for Morkel, they chanted for Steyn, and the resultant symphony - although joyful for Test-cricket lovers - wasn't quite to India's liking. The best new-ball combination in the world, Steyn and Morkel complemented each other with hostility and with swing. If India were expecting anything different, they were kidding themselves.
Yes the pitch was damp, and the ball seamed and nipped around. Harbhajan Singh later said a few stopped too. However, except for Rahul Dravid's dismissal, none seemed a direct consequence of a wet pitch. Virender Sehwag didn't last long enough to let the dampness have any indirect consequence on him, and Gautam Gambhir was worked over by Morkel.
India knew what they were getting into, they were mentally prepared, they tried to simulate what they would be facing by pulling the big players out of meaningless ODIs and sending them here early, but no amount of net sessions, no amount of video analysis, no amount of camp days can substitute for time in the middle. In the first place, it was ridiculous that the coach had to beg and plead to get to South Africa early for the camp. India were originally scheduled to have just two days of practice - which is the amount of time some members of the squad eventually got - and turn up for their biggest test as the world's No. 1 side. Two days to acclimatise to bouncier, seamier pitches, and thinner air. Go figure.
The result, though a bit surprising and spectacular, was not entirely shocking. This, after all, is a side that last played out of the subcontinent in March 2009. The first ball Sehwag touched on this tour moved a bit more than his body has become used to in the last 15 subcontinent Tests. And South Africa were ready with a third man not quite at the boundary. Gambhir was not given anything full by Morkel, who had got him twice in one day in Nagpur. He scratched and he fought, but he couldn't last, edging one of the rare length balls.
In 2009, India got away without a warm-up game in New Zealand because the pitches there held little of the terror of old, and Chris Martin and Iain O'Brien - no disrespect to them - aren't quite Steyn and Morkel. And as feared, after that series win, this has become a bit of a trend. While others were preparing for the World Twenty20 in the West Indies, the Indian players were busy playing Twenty20 cricket in the IPL. The team somehow eked out a warm-up game in Sri Lanka but then lost the first Test there, which probably undermined team management's case for practice games on future assignments.
MS Dhoni and Gary Kirsten - who Sourav Ganguly thinks should have pressed for one warm-up game at least - have been making positive noises, saying they are trying to do the best with whatever preparation time they have got. Harbhajan went a step further. "I don't think the warm-up game would have made any difference," he said. "We are actually playing on a very different wicket, I mean a wet wicket where the ball is seaming and nipping. The warm-up game would have been on a perfect cricketing wicket. You can't complain about wickets, but we need to make sure we come back into the game."
One would have thought criticism from former greats for India's Australia tour itinerary in 2007-08, which included just one warm-up game before the first Test, would have had some impact, especially considering their loss in Melbourne. Ridiculously, though, it has become a luxury to get that one warm-up game now. India only have to look to the other series in the Southern Hemisphere where England have played four warm-up games and three Tests. Even their tour got off to a poor start, but they knew they had done all they could do to prepare for it. That cannot be said of India.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo