The calm before the storm
George Mallory immortalised the challenge of the mountain, and man's urge to conquer it, in four simple words: "because it is there." Mountains have been there for ages, challenging man for ages, watching at times quietly, and at times with fury. On one side of Newlands stands the Table Mountain, staggeringly large, yet bewitchingly beautiful; watching visiting teams come and get conquered by the hosts, with the exception of Australia who have won three times in Cape Town. Many, like India this year and four years ago, have come here with the series level, only to be tripped at the peak. The Table watches in approval, at times quietly, at times with fury, through the wind that talks and whistles.
The last time India came here, it was on the back of a loss in Durban that killed the high they were on after they won the first Test of the series. Still they got off to a good start, securing a valuable first-innings lead on a turning pitch, but batted badly in the second. Then, a bowler short in the fourth innings, India couldn't conquer the summit and lost the match and the series. It was similar to what happened in Sydney 2003-04: going in to the final Test level, getting the lead against a formidable host, and then failing to close out the issue.
A repeat will be too heart-breaking for them, especially after the heart they showed in Durban in response to the Centurion drubbing. Also this could also be the last time many of this line-up are playing in South Africa. Who knows what the next Future Tours Programme has in store for them? To add to it, this could also be India's last Test with Gary Kirsten as their coach, since he may not renew his contract once it expires after the 2011 World Cup.
This is not just another Test for India, even though they are trying their best to make it sound like one. They are mindful that the situation is similar to the one four years ago. But, though the scoreline is the same, there is a difference between now and then. India will be carrying the kind of confidence a tennis player does in to the final set after he has come back from two sets to love down.
MS Dhoni says there is another difference. "The dressing-room atmosphere is much better right now," Dhoni said on the eve of the match. "Not that it wasn't good earlier, but right now it's the best atmosphere I have felt in the five years I have played international cricket. Most of the guys have achieved a lot in their Test careers, so now they are just enjoying their cricket and it feels like a very complete dressing room. We have youngsters in the side who are getting groomed under experienced cricketers. The squad and the support staff deserve a lot of credit."
The mental calm that seems to permeate through the India Test squad simultaneously draws from, and contributes to their recent ability to succeed when pushed into a corner. Even immediately after Centurion, in fact even towards the end of it, you could sense India were recovering, rather than panicking. They lost on the fifth morning, but soon after they were practising on the centre pitch and not wallowing. From the mood in that practice session, you couldn't tell whether India had won or lost an hour ago.
Dhoni puts down that mental calm to focussing on small things, and just hanging in there for long enough during tough situations. "I don't know what the reason is [for India never having won a series in South Africa]. But what we now focus on is the little things that we think are important. Preparing for the game, having good plans and executing those plans on the field; these are the small things that we take care of, and at the end of the day you will get the desired results more often than not."
The next five days might well be India's best chance of winning a series in South Africa, a feat managed by only Australia and England since South Africa's readmission to international cricket. India know the quality of some of their current cricketers who are nearing retirement, and the mental space the team is in, is not easy to replicate. "This is one of the best chances [to win a series in South Africa]. If you look at the last series in 2006, we were in the same position. We came to Cape Town when the series was level. The team that plays consistently over the next five days will be lifting the trophy.
"It's a chance to create history. The last game was historic as it was our first-ever Test win in Durban, and it proved we have the talent and the temperament to achieve success in South Africa. But it is not about the past. It is not about the last game or before that. It's all about those five days."
Between India and history stand the next five days and Newlands, watched over by the Table Mountain. Because it is there.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo