As the Indian team prepares to take the field at the Wanderers on Wednesday, it marks the beginning, not only of a huge series, but also of a massively important span of away Tests. The next year will see India taking on the likes of South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia, all away from home. A total of 13 Tests against some of the top teams playing in their own backyard has the potential to make a few careers and destroy some others. If you thought that this new look Indian team has not been tested enough, well, it is sure to get tested now.
The last time India played a Test series away from home was in Australia in early 2012. Quite remarkably, the only constant in the Indian batting order from that series till now is Virat Kohli. The new batsmen have been blooded into the team really well against weaker opposition on slow, low pitches where they have been allowed to feast on the helpless bowling. Now, they are up against the likes of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel on pitches with live grass. Batting against them is difficult enough, but on helpful South African pitches, they can be menacing. If the recently concluded ODI series is any indication to go by, the Indian batsmen are in for a tough time. The South African pace duo has minced no words either, and are seemingly too excited to control taking jibes at the Indian batsmen in front of the media.
India’s away record in the recent past doesn’t help things, with memories of the 8-0 drubbing at the hands of England and Australia together is still quite painful. The only positive is that many of the current players did not have to bear the brunt of those losses and will not be carrying any mental baggage. The importance of this series cannot be stressed enough. Indian skipper MS Dhoni was spotted practicing with a red ball even before the One-Day series had started. He would know that another whitewash here, and the fate of his captaincy would be hanging by a very thin rope.
Along with the team, it is also a crucial period for coach Duncan Fletcher. There have been question-mark in the past about his role in the management as well as the effectiveness of his contributions. The team’s successful home run of late has buried those questions for the time being. However, one bad performance and those doubts will resurface. Foreign coaches are one of the favorite scapegoats for the media.
It promises to be a fascinating game of Test cricket. The Indians will have to be careful and ensure that they are not blown away in the first Test as it will set the tone for the rest of the season. They can draw inspiration from the win in 2006 at the same venue when the team under Rahul Dravid put up a gutsy performance to surprise the Proteas. After all, that is what the Indian fan wants to see, for the team to show some spine and prove to the world that they are to be taken seriously.