There is a first time for everything but you could forgive MS Dhoni if he was wishing it wasn’t the first time for so many of his team-mates in South Africa.
The last time India toured South Africa, Virender Sehwag opened the batting, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar followed at Nos 3 and 4 and VVS Laxman was around to prop up the middle and lower orders. For those counting at home, that’s over 40,000 Test runs that India can no longer lean on.
This time just four members of India’s 17-man squad, including Dhoni, have toured South Africa before. Only five of them have played as many as 20 Tests, and that includes Pragyan Ohja, who is yet to play a Test outside the subcontinent. The thin edge of the experience wedge does not get much thinner.
In contrast, South Africa’s spine is still very much intact. The batting boasts Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers, while the Dale Steyn-Morne Morkel duet has become a trio with the rise of Vernon Philander.
In December 2010, which now seems like a world away, India were also the No 1 side in the world and building towards an ultimately triumphant 2011 World Cup. This time it is South Africa who are the top Test team in the world and they are unbeaten in their last 13 series, home and away. India, meanwhile, have lost their last eight Tests away.
To be fair, India have also won their last six Tests on home soil but that is likely to count for little when Steyn and company have a shiny new ball with the intent to examine the intestinal fortitude of India’s batsmen.
The return of a slimmer Zaheer Khan does tilt the bowling scales in a more equitable direction in terms of experience and India will be hoping it is case of less is more for Zaheer. India’s leading seamer returns after year on the sidelines and plenty of exercise and should provide the bowling attack with the nous it has sorely lacked against opposition that actually knows how to play cricket.
India’s lack of pace was exposed in the one-day series, and it will be Zaheer’s job to get the best out of Mohammad Shami and Ishant Sharma, who is likely to be the third seamer because of his experience. Zaheer is also the most successful bowler against Graeme Smith, having dismissed the South African captain eight times already. It is an edge India will want, and need, to exploit.
R Ashwin, likely to be the sole spinner, will also have to figure out the right length to bowl with little room for experimentation. India will not be able to afford an off day from one of their bowlers against a stacked South Africa batting line-up. The shortness of the series means if India are going to get a positive result, the learning curve might have to look like the East face of Mount Everest.
However, what this young Indian side does have on its side of the ledger is a desire to prove itself against the best of the world. The one-day series, claimed 2-0 by South Africa, may have given the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma a taste of what awaits them, with discouraging results, but the three of them are unlikely to shirk from the challenge. The same can be said of Cheteshwar Pujara, who will take guard in Johannesburg unencumbered by any psychological scars from the ODIs.
The same can be said for Shami and Ashwin, of whom much could depend for India over the next decade or so.
In that respect, even if India does lose the Test series, and odds are they will, there are gains to be made beyond the black and white lines of a scorecard. For the batsmen, succeeding in South Africa is about judicious shot selection and that is something even Sachin Tendulkar had to learn. For the bowlers, it is finding the right length. While two Tests (a subject for another time) probably precludes an extended lesson, this is still an opportunity for India’s young guns to show they can be more than one-trick ponies on the feather beds of home.