This Monday was 12 days short of two years since India last played a Test at home. The last time India did so, Ajinkya Rahane, an indispensable batsman now, was a toddler by the standards of Test cricket, and had been dropped after two nervous innings on debut. Sachin Tendulkar was actually an international player then. Between the last Test at home and this week, India have played 16 away Tests, Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag have officially retired, the new generation of batsmen has established itself, and the team has spent two Christmases away for Boxing Day Tests.
This Monday morning in Mohali, where the morning and evening chill and that companion of north Indian winter, smog, have begun to set in, you get a distinct Christmas feeling. In reverse. In South Africa and in Australia, India's last two Boxing Day Tests, it was India who would be doing all the hard work on the eve of the Test while the host players finished a light optional session and went away to their festivities. Australia have a family day the day before the Boxing Day Test. Players bring their families along to the nets, and then they all change and go to a team lunch. It is surreal. There is an eerie quiet around if you are looking for Test-match anticipation, and it seems the Indian team is the only people working in town.
Now in India, Diwali is about a week away. India is officially in festival mode. It is not that quiet this Monday morning - it can never be in India - but it is South Africa who are working hard, looking at the pitch, fretting over its dryness and the need to stay prepared for the worst, while like a boss India saunter into the city only two days and a bit before the Test, having danced in Harbhajan Singh's wedding and, in the case of Ravindra Jadeja and Stuart Binny, having played Ranji Trophy matches.
It's almost a given that everything will be taken care of. You talk to the South Africans, and they say the groundsmen have taken care the pitch will be to India's liking come Thursday. These young Indian batsmen cut their teeth in the tough overseas environs, and it is expected they will have an easier time at home against an inexperienced spin attack on pitches that won't offer much to the seamers. Never mind that India have lost both the Twenty20 and ODI series to South Africa. Or that India have failed to beat South Africa in a Test series in 11 years. Historically this is a side that has beaten South Africa in only two series out of 11.
There is renewed expectation and hope from the side because this is a rare time that the Indian Test team is surer of composition and its strength than the ODI side. In the here and now, they might not be sure of who the leading fast bowler is because Ishant Sharma is serving a one-match ban, but they have a world-class spinner bowling in favourable conditions with two competent support acts around him. There is also intense competition for the batting slots, which heats up the moment India decide to play Ravindra Jadeja or Stuart Binny as the fifth bowler. Three openers have presented their cases in recent time, and a spurned No. 3 has scored 145 when opening in the absence of two injured openers. It is a happy headache; there are options, unlike what the limited-overs side will have you believe.
On paper India have most bases covered given the conditions they are likely to encounter. R Ashwin and Jadeja demolished Australia the last time India played a home series against a competitive side. When Ishant is back, India will have a decent bowler in that limited role. Their opponents will have to will their way to wickets. Not that Dale Steyn is not capable of it, not that he hasn't done it before, but in the current environment he is likelier to be able to go surfing in the cities the Tests are being played than get the kind of pitch he got in Ahmedabad in 2008. If he has to carry out demolition, he will have to do it Nagpur 2010-style.
Off paper it will not be as easy for India because South Africa are a Test side known to find a way. Since readmission into international cricket, they have never had a world-class spinner capable of being a match-winner in Tests, but they have still held their own in India better than any other side. They have never looked like being outclassed. There has to be a reason they have lost only one Test series out of the last four in India. There has to be some resilience to a side that has not lost an away Test series anywhere in nine years. It includes two trips to India, and one to Sri Lanka, where they went one step further and won the series. South African sides check in in their baggage that intangible something.
Ashwin averages 24 at home, Jadeja under 20, but these batsmen will be their biggest challenge yet. Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis are not there, but Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis are better players of spin than any set these Indian spinners have demolished. They cannot afford to let them repeat what Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook did in 2011-12. If the Indian spinners and the big three South African batsmen are both at their best, this will be a contest for the ages.
The one worry with the Indian batting, one which South Africa will prey on, is that when they look good they look really good, but on a bad day they collapse spectacularly. Each of this young team's disappointments in recent times has been characterised by the ability to resist once they reach a breaking point. And they tend to reach that breaking point collectively. In England last year they went toe to toe with the hosts for two-and-a-half Tests, and then everybody crumbled at the same time. In Australia they collapsed in Adelaide and Brisbane after matching the hosts blow for blow until the final act of the match. Ravi Shastri, the India team director, has put it down to inexperience and being out of their comfort zones.
Now they are at home, and they have had the experience. The ODI series loss is gone but not entirely forgotten. As is Harbhajan's wedding. A much better show is expected from players who have served their time in away series manfully. It will be a surreal sight to watch India go into a home Test without a single player already established as a great. But there is expectation - and not without reason - that this side will turn a bleak home season around. To do so they will have to break down the only side that has bucked the recent trend of little Test success on tours. They have the tools to do so; it is the temperament and tactics that will be tested more.