Something sounds different in Mohali. It's not the relative silence from the far fewer vehicles on the roads than in other parts of the country, it's not the Gurbani that plays on local television every morning when the Sikhs observe their prayer rituals, it's not even the low-passing planes that seem to graze the PCA Stadium's floodlights as they fly away. It's the sounds of a new South African strategy.
Take a listen:
"In past times that I have played here, I've bowled against Virender Sehwag, that guy was a nightmare to bowl to. If you missed your mark by just that much, he would smoke you. Now, India's batting line up is slightly different. The two opening batters let you bowl to them a little more but when they are both in form they are really difficult players to bowl to but not as hectic as VS, who would blaze from ball one… "
"In India, day one, the first hour, the first session, there seems to be something in the wickets and it does look like the ball plays a part, whether it's swinging or seaming around. It's also a great opportunity to try and put the Indian bowlers under pressure. I do think their seamers are maybe a bit inexperienced and haven't had a lot of success in international cricket, especially in Test cricket… "
"I don't think they would be complaining about the wickets if they were winning. I think it's a reason to perhaps shift their attention from losing... "
Those statements, made by Faf du Plessis, Dale Steyn and Dean Elgar, are subtle but stinging attacks on the every department of the Indian team from their psyche to their squad. And South Africa have earned the right to make them.
They can talk the talk because they are in their tenth year of walking the walk around the cricketing world. South Africa were last defeated in a Test series away from home in 2006 by Sri Lanka. Since then, they have won in Sri Lanka, leaving India and the UAE as the only two places where they have merely drawn series (two in each place) in this period. In sporting terms, that amounts to between two and three generations of players who have gone everywhere undefeated and a small core of seniors who have provided continuity.
Steyn has been part of the nucleus that has seen it all. He has been responsible for some of South Africa's most memorable victories (Nagpur 2010, Perth 2012, Galle 2013) and has always had an easy way with words, so it's not entirely unexpected that he took a gentle swipe.
The last time Steyn played India in India, he bowled to Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir upfront. He called the former a "nightmare" to come up against because Sehwag preyed on anything that was even slightly score-able. This time, he will bowl to Shikhar Dhawan and M Vijay, players with some way to go before they reach the reputation of their predecessors.
"This is more than just pre-series hype, it's smart pre-series hype. In crafty ways South Africa are discussing their strengths without being arrogant and pointing out India's vulnerabilities without being condescending"
Steyn acknowledged they can be dangerous when "in form", but at least one of them, Dhawan, is not. He struggled to convert his starts in the ODIs and even though India's team director Ravi Shastri insisted that Dhawan's long-format form cannot be judged on his fifty-over failings, Steyn has already seen a weak spot and he has told the world about it. Worse than that, Steyn went on to explain that he has also identified the other weaknesses running through the Indian line-up and will be sure to remind them of it in the field.
India could retort in much the same way and may be tempted to, after Elgar teased their attack by pointing out their lack of experience and incision at this level. Between them, Varun Aaron, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav have only played 34 Tests and none of them have an average under 35.00. Later in the series India could counteract that with Ishant Sharma, who has played 31 more Tests than the rest of the quicks put together and has 200 wickets to his name but South Africa will have a ready response: of all the opposition Sharma has bowled to, his average against South Africa is the worst, 47.95.
Steyn spelled out the gulf between India's past and present, Elgar illustrated the area where they may be limited but du Plessis' line was the most daring and defiant. He questioned India's confidence in themselves in the one place they should feel entirely self-assured. Recent evidence backed du Plessis' boldness. India were unhappy with pitches in the one-day series and have been making public noises about their hope to have more home advantage (read: spinner-friendly conditions) in the Tests.
With that in mind, it's no surprise that the only sections South Africa have not spoken about with superiority is the spin department. They have given due deference to R Ashwin. Elgar called him "India's spearhead", and du Plessis said he would be the "biggest threat" to South Africa and how they take him on could determine the outcome of the series. A few breaths later, all the South Africans have also talked up their own spin department but only in the context of their own dynamic. Steyn admitted South Africa "still rely heavily on our quicks", but explained how the spinners complement them so that "everybody fits into this team somewhere, so as a unit we are able to pick up 20 wickets".
When all this talking from South Africa is dissected, it's clear this is more than just pre-series hype, it's smart pre-series hype. In confident, crafty ways South Africa are discussing their strengths without being arrogant and pointing out India's vulnerabilities without being condescending. They are taking the mental game to a more evolved level, casually but cleverly throwing in phrases which can play on the Indian mindset.
This is an area of sport South Africa has not fully explored before and it makes sense that they would pick now to try it. They have already done everything else: proved their adaptability with bat and ball, transitioned through the retirements of some of their greats and maintained dominance in this format. To keep growing, this is the next step and they have just the person to help them take it.
It cannot be a coincidence that their new-found sharpness of tongue has come at the same time they have employed an Australian in their support staff. Officially, Michael Hussey's title is batting consultant. Everyone including du Plessis and Elgar have elaborated on the importance of having someone who enjoyed success in the subcontinent around the group. Unofficially, perhaps he is teaching them a few other things too.
India's generation of young, brash players are unlikely to sit back and accept all of this silently, though. That can only mean everything could sound different by the end of the series.