Dhoni not fretful about India's inexperienced Test squad
There was a time when a day before departure for a big tour would be the day for a captain to state intent or unwittingly reveal fears. With India's most successful Test captain MS Dhoni, though, it has always been about cooling things down a bit. Hours before he and team-mates left for the big - not long - tour of South Africa, you couldn't tell if Dhoni was the captain of a side that has won its last six Tests at home or one that has lost its last eight away. Or if the team is going to carry the confidence accumulated over the home season or doubts sown on the previous two trips - to England and to Australia.
What is certain is, this is India's most inexperienced batting line-up in a long, long time, India don't have enough time to acclimatise to the conditions, and the conditions will be vastly different from what they are used to. About this being a new side Dhoni said even Sachin Tendulkar at some point played for the first time, about the lack of time he said the big help will be that the ODIs will be played before the Tests, and he didn't shy away from the challenge of facing the bouncing and moving ball, something his side will need to get used to.
"Well if you see there is always a new start," Dhoni said when asked about cricket Indian cricket after Tendulkar. "When paaji [Tendulkar] played his first Test match that was his first Test match.
"What's fairly important is that they [the new batsmen] have a good amount of exposure - even though it's ODIs - outside India. That always helps you adjust to the pace and bounce of the wicket. It will be a new challenge for all of them, at the same time it is a learning curve. It's the first time that they will be going there, and they will learn a lot in the series."
Dhoni knows his team might be kids when it comes to international experience - especially in testing conditions - but they won't be treated with kid gloves should they fail. "There is a one thing for sure," Dhoni said. "If you don't perform and you're part of the team, whether you're playing your first Test or 50th Test match, criticism goes hand in hand so that's something you can't really get away from. If you don't perform you will be criticised.
"What they need to keep in mind, what's really in their hands, is to prepare properly. Also, concentrate on what little things they need to do so that they're successful. I think it's all about that. Good exposure."
Dhoni was hopeful the sequence of the tour - ODIs, followed by a tour game, followed by the Tests - will help his side counter the reality of Indian cricket: no proper preparation for big tours. "I think it is always a challenge when you go and play abroad," Dhoni said. "You are competing against the home team, and they know the conditions well. Their fast bowlers always know which length to bowl and also the areas in which they need to bowl. I feel the batsmen will have to quickly adjust to the bounce, see the deliveries which they can leave and push the bowlers to bowl at them instead of going to the bowlers.
"But of course starting with the ODIs it is always a help. When you get to play the shots, you get rid of nerve factor initially. We are playing three ODIs initially, the guys will be expressing themselves, will be playing shots and then they will be carrying it forward into the Test matches as well. The good thing is that there won't be too many changes when you compare the Test squad to the ODI squad."
Dhoni was a bit combative - in his quiet manner - when asked the regular questions before overseas tours. About the pace battery, he said he is always asked about the pace battery wherever he tours, and his response on the microphone cannot change. About the pressure, he said India are supposed to be under pressure even when they play Ireland, so he can't help those expectations. When the statistics of India's bowling at death was compared to South Africa's, Dhoni was quick to bring up Indian conditions and the fact that they had good stats when they did play in England.
Before leaving, Dhoni made it a point to emphasise that the new players should be allowed to develop in their own right, and not be compared to the Tendulkars and Dravids. "If possible, we will omit the No. 4 position," Dhoni joked. "One, two, three, five six, seven and then we'll play till 12. But again, it's not about one individual. Whoever bats at that slot, it is not pressure on that individual saying he is replacing Sachin Tendulkar. There is no replacing anyone. He brings his own character into the side.
"Whoever is going to bat at No. 4, as of now, we have not decided. There is hardly any break for us to decide who will bat at No. 4. But again, every slot, especially when talking about Test cricket, it's an important slot. The top two, No. 3, No. 4, they have their own importance. It's a set-up that's given by them that really helps the team, score big runs and put a big total on board and give bowlers that extra help so that they can afford to try out a few things that need to be tried. Overall, we don't know who will be batting at No. 4 but there is no replacing the individual."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo