It's finally here - a rather unusually scheduled home season that most of us have been looking forward to for reasons that range from the curious to the exciting. The curiosity, or rather a sense of anxiety that has been fuelled by the retirements of two of Indian Test cricket's stalwarts. The much-discussed transition is now a matter of reality and not just your average pub chat in Bengaluru or Hyderabad.
The exciting part about this very phase is the sheer joy of watching youth in action, trying in their own little way of finding their feet in the big time, trying to admonish whatever little self-doubts they had, trying to show and prove that they belong there and set the narrative for hopefully, years to come. The next eighteen months, a majority of which India will spend playing its best cricket at home, will play a critical role in setting the blueprint for its long-term future.
This blueprint I am referring to requires a pretty clear and specific mission - the next overseas tour is to South Africa in 2013 and those involved directly with the national team must start planning accordingly. The selectors and the team management had a wonderful chance to show their vision (even though this committee picked its last set of squads) by picking a side that they felt could have players who might represent India in that tour.
Instead they took the easy way out by naming a side that will most likely come through rather comfortably in this series against New Zealand, even if the visitors play their best cricket. Bad start, yes but nothing to worry about, given that India plays eight more Test matches in this period, against stronger opposition and with a new selection committee in place. The series against England in a couple of months' time, should in all likelihood reveal the direction that Indian cricket chooses to take for the next two years, with the tour to South Africa hopefully becoming a critical consideration in how squads are picked.
How exactly do we go about this? For a start, this series gives the team management enough opportunities to tinker around with the batting order.
Ajinkya Rahane's inclusion in the squad means he could perhaps open the batting along with Gautam Gambhir, and let Virender Sehwag fulfil his long-held ambition of batting in the middle-order, at least in one of the two Tests.
Cheteshwar Pujara, with his consistent performances in the India A tour of the West Indies has pretty much sealed his place in the starting XI, but where he bats could be an interesting question. I'd prefer Pujara at number 3, given that he's been batting there all his life, but Virat Kohli's phenomenal rise as an international cricketer, albeit in limited-overs, in that position makes for a strong case in his favour.
At the risk of disturbing the stability that a number 3 brings to the batting order, I'd maybe split the responsibilities between Pujara and Kohli in these two Tests. Which brings us to the number six slot, a position that has been the most contested in this batting order, till Kohli used it rather effectively to secure his spot in the batting order, if not that position.
Subramaniam Badrinath, who has been a contender for this slot for a considerable period of time has been included in the squad after Laxman announced his retirement, should ideally get the nod, given that Suresh Raina's abilities as a Test batsman doesn't exactly inspire confidence (especially, if we're talking 2013).
While Badrinath's selection could alternatively be perceived as short-term and given the constant comparisons with how Mike Hussey made the Aussie spot his own, he deserves an extended run to simply show what he brings to the table, given his lengthy, experienced and successful first-class career.
Raina, all things considered would be a much safer pick, given that he's unlikely to be exposed to his troubles against the short ball or the moving ball at home, but Badrinath with his class, technical superiority and simply experience, offers a lot more. For the sake of fairness before finally discarding him, I'd hope that the management plays Badrinath for at least five of the ten home Tests.
As far as bowling goes, and this is where I'd imagine the question marks really are, I'd expect India to beef up tactically - an area where they've lacked the requisite imagination to pick twenty opposition wickets away from home. It's fair to say that the spinners will more or less dominate the discourse in the ten home Tests, but how India manage their pace bowling resources (and I am referring to the likes of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma) should define their chances in South Africa.
First and foremost, there is the need to assemble a bowling unit, rather than just a bowling attack. The immediate bit might involve identifying 5-6 pace bowlers, with variety in skills and blooding them gradually into the big time, if not for exposure, to also rest the likes of Ishant and Zaheer.
Also, if we've been observing Duncan Fletcher as a tactician, a trend worth picking up is his obsession with pace, which is where the likes of Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron (when picked) become important. From whatever little we've seen of them, both Yadav and Aaron have shown a fair degree of consistency as far as pace is concerned, but from a tactical point of view, they fall short i.e. the ability to work a batsman over as opposed to try hard for a wicket every ball, patience, and simply bowling six deliveries in one spot.
Indeed, these are small things that aren't learnt or absorbed overnight, but if India have to try and compete or win in South Africa, these minor details make a massive difference. From a spinners' point of view, Ravichandran Ashwin, despite his numbers, bowled reasonably okay in Australia and with Pragyan Ojha forms a formidable duo, at least at home. Away from home, however, and this is where Ashwin gets the nod, and (unless Harbhajan makes a remarkable comeback) might need a bit of help from the batting order in putting the runs, so that his complete repertoire comes into play.
Simply from a tactical point of view, India need to be a bit more ruthless in situations where they opt for complacency (inadvertently, or otherwise). Getting a batting order five down for under 100 might seem like a great start, but that's where over the last couple of years, India has tended to let the game drift and drift to an extent where they're chasing eventually it rather than setting the pace.
During the last two overseas trips, the body language, to put it bluntly was pathetic or worse, disinterested. That clearly needs to change and these eighteen months could definitely play a big part in how they land in South Africa, the confidence, the approach and their demeanour.
Finally, a big player in the eventual success of this mission is the BCCI. Yes, they've responded to the routings in England and Australia with A tours and sweeping changes in domestic cricket as far as the format is concerned. If I were the BCCI, I'd be sending a developmental squad or an A team to South Africa between December and February (Yes, it clashes with India's domestic season) to get a feel of things to come a year later.
The BCCI should ideally schedule a tour there even if it means playing against the domestic franchises in that country, and not specifically the SA A team, and this is where scouting purely in terms of conditions and a few players, might play an encouraging role when the main squad visits.
It's time to get things right, and that's where I think having a mission might benefit this setup. Of course, you're going to hear the cliched "we believe in taking each Test match/series as it comes" but if every Test/series plays its own role in enriching this journey towards South Africa 2013, nothing like it. Planning or the clear lack of it was one of the most flogged reasons for India's recent overseas Test debacles and it's time Indian cricket responded to it rather proactively than swatting it away as it prefers to.
Hyderabad and Bangalore might, in typical terms be just two Test matches, but they hopefully represent the start of something meaningful, and special.
The mission starts now.