A new era begins in Indian cricket history when their tour to South Africa gets underway. This will be known as the 'Post Sachin Tendulkar' era. Yes, the Little Master retired from the One-Day International arena nearly a year ago, but the outpouring of emotion on his final exit will continue until the Tests get underway. Only then will it truly dawn that he is gone.
In Johannesburg though, the Indian team is unperturbed. That is primarily because of the mass hysteria they face whenever they step out of their hotel collectively, or their homes individually. Here, no one is bothering them. There is even only one police van, instead of a whole cavalcade, guiding their tour bus. It shows that they are just cricketers and not demi-gods.
Talking about cricket, they have some major business to attend to in the next three-plus weeks. There is a short ODI series, then a tour game and finally a two-match Test series.
A lot rides on how it all pans out, and no, one isn’t talking about the political shenanigans that took place ahead of this trip. All of this has to do with the action between the boundary ropes.
The 'Men in Blue' have been flying high since their ODI defeat to Pakistan in early January. After that series loss at home, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his boys haven’t looked back and this young team has gone on to conquer the world.
They beat England at home, and then stunned everyone to lift the Champions Trophy in England, thereafter won in West Indies despite a slow start and finished off the previous season with an easy win against Zimbabwe.
They continued their magical touch against Australia, chasing down grand totals at will, and then brushed the West Indies aside yet again.
There seemed to be no match for the world number one team, until now. South Africa at home, on bouncy wickets with pace as their main weapon of choice, will be an altogether different proposition. And tougher, no doubt.
Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma have each scored more than 1000 ODI runs this calendar year. It shows the purple patch they are in, giving confidence to the Indian batting line-up and pushing the team forward.
These three, along with skipper Dhoni, are the key wickets. If India, as expected, play five bowlers in the ODI series, then the poor form of Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina will be a bad omen for them.
Against a bowling line-up boasting of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis, the top three batsmen will be expected to do much of the scoring. Even so, it is the support they get from the others that will decide this battle, and possibly the series.
It brings the focus to Indian bowlers. They seem a sad lot, and for good reason. All year round, they play the Indian Premier League and the majority of their international cricket on flat pitches, where batsmen can hit them on the front foot and across the line, at will.
Scores of 350-plus have now started to be put up and chased easily, especially with the only-four-fielders-outside-30-yards rule. It is an unfair balance and they have been at the receiving end.
The one time they got a chance to prove their mettle, in the Champions Trophy in England, wherein conditions evened the balance between bat and ball. Thereafter, they played a stellar role in India’s victory.
Now, with two new balls and pitches laid out to help bowlers, both in terms of pace and bounce, the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Mohammad Shami and even Ishant Sharma should be licking their lips. The spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, pick themselves and Amit Mishra shouldn’t expect to play.
This is going to be the big debate. For some time now, Dhoni has preferred playing with five bowlers, be it in Tests or ODIs. India's part-timer strength is not what it used to be, and the changes in ODI rules are to blame for that as well.
In that light, playing five bowlers is of the essence, especially in limited-overs. Doing so will also prepare the players for the Test series when India will again look to repeat this strategy.
If five bowlers do play, then there are quite a few permutations possible. Bhuvneshwar, Shami and Umesh should be the first-choice bowlers, with Ishant as back up. If Dhoni does feel the need to play six batsmen, highly unlikely in the first ODI, Ambati Rayudu should get the nod ahead of Ajinkya Rahane.
Things seem easier for the Proteas. Jacques Kallis is fit again and will be available for selection. The pitch looks green, despite two shavings on the day before the first ODI, and it should have ample bounce.
Their bowling against the Indian batting should be a most intriguing battle. If there is a worry, it is the poor form of their batsmen.
The Indian bowling attack might be timid on flat pitches, but when the equilibrium between bat and ball is balanced, they roar out loud. South Africa found that out in the 2013 Champions Trophy, as did the rest of the world, and they shouldn’t forget it in a hurry.
The wait for this marquee series has been too long and there have been too many hurdles in their way. The tour almost didn’t happen, due to political reasons, and cricket suffered as a whole. When this happens, off-field machinations lend a new taste to the action on-field, and sometimes that turns sour.
Finally though, it is time to taste some sweet cricket action, between the number one Test side and the number one ODI side.
© Cricket World 2013