History beckons at the brown mamba
India have been here before. On both their previous two Test trips to South Africa, they played one great Test and went into the last one with the series level. Once they did it against all odds, once they were expected to when they sent possibly their best touring party to South Africa. In the decider on both occasions, it was the third innings that denied them. At Newlands in 2006-07, after a stunning win in the Wanderers Test, they batted poorly in the third innings to squander a 41-run first-innings lead. Again at Newlands in 2010-11, they fought hard to take a two-run lead, then had South Africa 130 for 6, but ran out of gas and into Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher.
There must be something about Newlands: South Africa have not lost a Test there in more than six years; they have played 11 there in that period. This time, though, there is no Cape Town. This time it is Durban where India will try to win the series. Durban, South Africa's worst Test venue in recent years. Worst not just at home. Anywhere. They have lost to Sri Lanka, India, England and Australia in their last four matches at Kingsmead. The reason is not hard to find to fathom. The pitch here is slower. The green mamba is almost a myth now. When too much grass is left, it can become a lottery.
There isn't much grass here this time. It looks brown and dry. South Africa aren't going to display public annoyance, but they are not cock-a-hoop about it. "It looks pretty dry, which is probably not what we were expecting with the amount of rain they've had around," South Africa's coach Russell Domingo said. "I know the nature of the pitch has changed over the last five or six years so we were thinking it would be a bit slower than what we've become accustomed to over the last ten years so it's going to be a hard Test match. It's not going to be a short 180-all-out game. It's going to be another tough Test under conditions which probably won't be of major benefit for us."
India will like to believe they are starting on an even footing, but they have to recover fast from the last Test, both physically and emotionally. Their fast bowlers worked a lot in Johannesburg, and they have had one day less to recover than South Africa's quicks. Emotionally they have to get over a game the likes of which they haven't experienced before. From being no-hopers before the first day to being favourites by the end of the fourth to hanging on for dear lives on the fifth, India were on quite a ride. After all they threw at South Africa, surely they must be wondering what it will take to beat them at home.
It will take similar intensity. If India fall behind early in the match, they might not have enough emotional strength to mount another comeback. They have had only three days to try to put behind them the high-octane last day at the Wanderers. They have rested on one of those three days, two in the case of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma. On the other two days, an interesting development has been the increase in the role played by Ravindra Jadeja in the nets. He has been bowling more, and batting for longer. Two days before the match, he even bowled seam-up with the bowling coach Joe Dawes watching. This might not be much more than a flirtation with the idea of playing him or just being prepared in case one of the bowlers doesn't recover in time after Johannesburg.
The fruit has been worth the price paid in Johannesburg. Nobody is talking of scarred and scared batsmen anymore. The opposition are talking about the Indian bowlers' skills. The last time India came to play a Test in Durban they were the hardest-working people in the city on Christmas day. This time, too, Durban remained as sleepy as it does on Christmas day, but South Africa worked just as hard as India in the nets, especially Jacques Kallis, who has decided to retire after this game. Morne Morkel is racing against time to recover from his ankle injury and make it to Kingsmead. It's not just their poor recent record here that is making South Africa wary; it's also India's performance at the Wanderers.
India have already exceeded expectations on this tour, but this is not the time for them to take stock of that. They can take pride in having told South Africa that it will take nothing but their best to win this home series. A step further, though, will cap a remarkable year for them.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo