Less-significant South Africa tour still vital yardstick for India
This was supposed to be India's big tour. It was two years of home cricket in the making. India had even sent an A team here earlier in the year to become more familiar with the conditions. And it was a proper A team: except for Virat Kohli, all the Test batsmen in this side made the trip. Coach Duncan Fletcher himself dropped in. For a change, the cricketing wing of Team India was looking ahead, or possibly the change was that it was being paid heed to.
It was a proper tour: three Tests, seven ODIs, two Twenty20s. Enough time to travel all over this beautiful country. Enough time to lose form, enough to regain it. Enough time for ups and downs and all the experiences a cricket tour brings. Enough time for rhythms to build. Except that the real world sometimes doesn't agree with proper cricket. And so we have a tour not many are excited about. Three years ago "we are waiting" billboards welcomed India everywhere they went. This time around the local press seems to suggest only aggressive crowds are waiting to let their displeasure be known.
The statistics being dug out are of the last time a team other than Zimbabwe, Bangladesh or the Associates came to South Africa for a tour of decent length but didn't go to Cape Town at all. Incidentally, it happened back in November 2002 when Sri Lanka didn't play any of their five ODIs and two Tests in the Mother City. Once the disappointment of a wasted tour subsides, though, you will realise it is still a significant trip for India. There is a "last" that happened with India much before the last time a visiting team didn't go to Cape Town.
The last time India went through such complete overhaul of batting, going to a proper - in terms of strength of opposition, not duration - tour with such a raw batting line-up, full of virtual debutants, was when Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, and later VVS Laxman, started to join Sachin Tendulkar in the middle order. All four properly came together incidentally on a tour of South Africa. In a way Tendulkar has not done India many favours by playing all the home Tests and then retiring before this tour. Those were matches a youngster could have used to gain experience before a year full of overseas assignments.
Like the mutated tour, though, you have no choice but to be philosophical about this now. These batsmen still have it better than their predecessors. That the ODIs are before the Tests salvages the situation a bit for India. As MS Dhoni said before leaving for South Africa, the nature of that format and that it demands a more free-flowing game will help the young batting line-up get rid of early nerves before the two-Test series begins. In a way, the same can be said in the larger scheme of these batsmen's careers too.
When Dravid and Ganguly made their Test debut, in England, they had played five and two ODIs, and had barely seen the world outside India. Laxman was on a tour of South Africa before he had played an ODI. Only Virender Sehwag among that older group had with him a body of work in international cricket - 22 ODIs - before he became a Test cricketer.
Almost all of the batsmen on this trip have had experience of being in international cricket before this tour. Rohit Sharma set the record for most ODIs before Test debut, Shikhar Dhawan faces Dale Steyn in the IPL nets, and Kohli has established himself as one of the best chasers in ODIs and captains the likes of AB de Villiers. Even though this batting line-up has a collective experience of three Tests in South Africa, they have the exposure, they are more worldly wise, more confident than Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman were when they were sent to face Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, a young and quick Lance Klusener, and Brian McMillan. The test now is of their skill, of their temperament, of how they adjust to the conditions, how they make the adjustment from facing Sammy and his friendly friends in Kanpur to Steyn and Co on pitches with bounce and seam.
It's not all about the batsmen, though. India's famous overseas Test wins have of late been set up by their bowlers. They have also tended to escape a lot of flak because it has always been the great Indian batting line-up that has been expected to carry them through everywhere. This time around, under the mentorship of the returning Zaheer Khan, they will possibly be asked the same number of questions as the batsmen.
Apart from Zaheer, only Ishant Sharma has played a Test in South Africa, and he doesn't look like he will add to that tally. The bowlers, too, will rely on the ODIs to get used to the outfields on which they will run in, to condition themselves to bowl long spells, to find the lengths that will give them assistance. Like the batsmen, they might benefit from lower expectations.
It is an unusual tour for India. One that promises to actually test how good India's transition from the desperation of 2012 has been, but one that comes with lower expectations than those two away tours in which they were whitewashed. The ODI series, given South Africa's recent form, is open - although South Africa might still fancy a few psychological blows on extra spicy pitches - but in the Tests you'd venture India will take anything better than a 2-0 defeat to a fully fit South African side, provided it doesn't come through weather interruptions.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo