India ready for Kingsmead Test
Christmas is in the air in Durban. If you haven't been to a Boxing Day Test - and this correspondent hadn't - you might find it almost surreal. Test cricket brings its own vibe with it; an anticipation and intensity that appears to be missing, at least on the surface. There is Christmas, there are "The Holidays", and then there is the New Year. It is a time to relax, a time to enjoy, a time to take stock, and a time to look forward.
Make no mistake about it, though: in less than 24 hours India's biggest Test of the year will start, and perhaps this particular unit's biggest too. It has been a year of success where they have held on to their No.1 ranking for 360 days, but they will know how seriously that tag will be taken if they find themselves 2-0 down on seaming tracks in a country that has forever been their nemesis.
It was only yesterday, on a hot, humid, sapping day that MS Dhoni said - while walking out of the nets - that he was reminded of Chennai. However, just one look at the pitch is enough to tell you that the difference in playing conditions in Chennai and Durban is as wide as the Indian Ocean that separates the two cities. The pitch here is lush green - Gary Kirsten said that from the change room it looked the same colour as the outfield, and the overhead conditions - forecast to be cloudy for the duration of this Test - are sure to help swing and seam. For a city full of people of Indian origin, Kingsmead is a foreign island. Forget the six sixes that Yuvraj Singh hit here in an over in the World Twenty20. In Test cricket, India don't even average half as much per wicket as Yuvraj managed in one T20 over. In five all-out innings here, they have managed 862 runs.
Even in isolation, the conditions are going to present a supreme challenge to the batsmen who lasted 38.4 overs on a damp pitch in Centurion; in the context of the series, the challenge becomes huge. That said, there is nothing to suggest they can't pass this test. Everyone knows these are better batsmen than a score of 136 all out on a testing pitch suggests. Coach Kirsten has said they needed, and still need, to apply themselves better on these kinds of surfaces. Preparation might have suffered for the first Test because of the absence of a warm-up game, but they have worked hard for this one.
Out has gone the policy of having light training sessions on the eve of the game. On Christmas day, the Indian team was the group of hardest-working people in Durban. Zaheer Khan, a huge addition to the side, was the only man to opt out of the session, and this team has - with good results - let Zaheer prepare on his own for big matches. However, as if a reminder was needed that they are up against it, Gautam Gambhir's injured left hand has worsened and M Vijay might well have to pad up on short notice once again.
On the surface, though, keeping in with the festive spirit, India are not making this sound like it is their time of reckoning. It is understandable, too, for they don't want to put any undue pressure on themselves. "Every game is big for us," Dhoni said on the eve of the game. "As I always say, being No.1 or when you are on course to becoming No.1, every game is important. Irrespective of where you are playing in a particular series. Whether you are playing in the subcontinent or outside. We don't consider one Test match more important than the others. By doing that, you can put additional pressure on yourself. We believe in taking care of small things, so we respect every Test."
When Dhoni was asked to look back at the last year, he again chose to focus on the details - the tailenders contributing more runs than they used to; the part-time bowlers chipping in with wickets. It all points to an admirable fighting spirit that this team prides itself on. Saving matches after a poor first innings, coming back from behind to win Tests, coming back from behind to level series, managing without a few key players.
It is that spirit that they will collectively be dialling for, but the rest of the world will also be questioning their skills to do well in all conditions. Not that they have proven otherwise in the past, but this - before the series started - seemed their best chance to do so. If they can't summon up the spirit and the skills over the next five days, the last three weeks of the year will have more to say about the team than the first 49.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo