Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
There is finally admission from the India camp they could have prepared better for the series in South Africa. After Virat Kohli, the captain, had said they came "very well prepared" into the first Test, coach Ravi Shastri said in the lead-up to the final Test that 10 more days of preparation in South Africa would have made a difference. Incidentally, there have been reports that the BCCI offered to send the Test specialists early to South Africa, but the team management shot the idea down.
"There was a thought [to send the Test specialists early] but then you are disjointed," Shastri said. "Even as a team you are disjointed. Who is going to handle things here? Preparation wise or whatever. Those thoughts can be put out in hindsight. But, in hindsight, I would say the best thing would be, reach there two weeks earlier."
India arrived in South Africa on December 28 and began training on December 30. Allowing for a holiday on January 1, India had a total of five days to prepare for the bouncier and seamier conditions before the first Test, but they chose not to train on the day before the Test. This is not the last overseas tour for India this year; these issues might crop up again, but Shastri said there will be steps taken on future tours to ensure the team gets the best preparation.
"Unfortunately the schedule was such that you had matches [on till a few days before the team left for South Africa]," Shastri said. "But I am sure henceforth, in the future, when itineraries are made, that will be taken into account, there is absolutely no doubt about that. You get there couple of weeks earlier and prepare."
The team management, though, doesn't seem to be in any mood to even consider the merits and demerits of their selections for the first two Tests, which have raised more than a few eyebrows. The most contentious selection has been that of Rohit Sharma ahead of Ajinkya Rahane. "That [debate] will always be the case," Shastri said. "If Ajinkya had played first and not done well, you would have asked me the same question, why Rohit hasn't played. Rohit played, he didn't do well, you are asking me why Ajinkya didn't play. The same would have happened with the fast bowlers. So when you have choices... the team management has discussed what is the best option and they stick by it, they go by it."
Shastri was asked if the constant tinkering with the combination might have caused uncertainty in players' minds. "Overseas, you go on current form and you go on conditions and you see which player can adapt to certain conditions quicker than the other," Shastri said. "What are the overhead conditions for which bowler to play as opposed to what kind of track you will get, where you need a bowler with bounce or you need a bowler with swing. So that's where the chopping and changing starts."
This is India's first tour outside Asia and the West Indies since the first week of 2015. The results so far threaten a repeat of the bad old days of Indian cricket. Even though India will retain the No. 1 ranking by a whisker even if they lose 3-0, questions are being asked if they indeed are the best Test team in the world. Shastri took to comparing India's performance with that of other teams in India.
"We did [look like the No. 1 side]," Shastri said. "We had our moments in both Test matches, and we looked like the No.1 team when we bowled out South Africa for 130 [in the second innings in Cape Town]. When we closed the gap thanks to Virat's brilliant innings [in Centurion], and had them two-down just 30 runs ahead, we looked like the No.1 team in overseas conditions. Not many teams look half that when they come to India."
Except that Australia almost beat India in a series early last year, and Sri Lanka threatened to win a Test late last year. Except that since the start of 2011, India have won only one out of 24 Tests in South Africa, Australia, England and New Zealand.
One of the big differences between India at home and in these countries has been how India win the big moments and manage to find a way back into contests at home. Shastri put it down to conditions to begin with that India weren't winning these big moments in South Africa.
"First of all overseas conditions," Shastri said. "Conditions back home, we are familiar with. We shouldn't be in positions back home where you have to fight back as far as I am concerned. We fought back, we did well. Here, conditions are different. In hindsight I would say another 10 days of practice here would have made a difference. But that's no excuse. The pitch we play on, it's the same for both sides, and I would rather focus on the 20 wickets we have taken. That has given us a chance in both Test matches to win games. If our top order can fire, it will be a good Test match."
Earlier Kohli had talked about how the Cape Town Test finished in three days but "we are not going to complain about it". Shastri took the topic a step ahead, saying now teams shouldn't talk about Indian conditions if matches end even sooner. It was not mentioned though that the Centurion track was almost like one you might find in India, assisting spin on day one and with nearly not as much pace and bounce as South Africa would have liked.
"Well there is grass on the track and you expect that overseas," Shastri said of the Wanderers track, where the third Test will be played. "We are not here to moan about the tracks because, like I said at the start, both teams play on the same surface. The good thing though is, people won't crib and moan when matches in India get over in two-and-a-half days. Neither will they ask me, 'What kind of track are you playing on?' We are not here to complain, we have taken 20 wickets. When you take 20 wickets, you have a chance to win. If we had batted better, we might have won."
Shastri said the team was looking forward to the challenge in Johannesburg. "We have had chances in both Test matches but we didn't make the most of it," Shastri said. "So when you believe you have a chance to win, then you look forward to a Test match. When you don't believe you can win, you don't look forward to a Test match, as simple as that."