These are momentous times for Indian cricket.
In a little over three weeks, the two home Tests against West Indies will be over. A team very much in transition will then prepare for some arduous overseas Tests.
First up will be South Africa, where a 1-1 draw in 2010/11 has been their best result. They will be up against side who are comfortably clear at the top of the rankings. They will need to handle opponents piqued by the absence of the New Year Test at Newlands, the marquee event on the South African cricket calendar.
After that, a brief stopover at home will be followed by another two-Test series, in New Zealand. They won there four years ago – not least because of the great escape in Napier – but that it was their first series success in New Zealand since 1967/68 reveals how challenging India usually find the conditions.
After switching to limited-overs mode for the Asia Cup (50 overs), World Twenty20 and the Indian Premier League, the players will reassemble for perhaps the most difficult trip of all. The last time India toured England, in a contest between sides ranked No 1 and No 2, they were humiliated 4-0. England could wrap up a fourth straight Ashes win this winter, and only South Africa have bested them on their own turf since Rahul Dravid’s team edged a three-Test series 1-0 in 2007.
That is the central narrative. But in the days and months ahead, a parallel one will command as much attention.
For the first time in nearly a quarter century, India’s cricketers will have to negotiate all these tasks without Sachin Tendulkar. He first toured New Zealand in February 1990, and England a few months later. He went to South Africa for the first time in 1992/93. With the exception of MS Dhoni, most others in the Test squad were toddlers then.
Domestic cricket in India is like the unloved wallflower, but over the past few days, it has been attracting as much attention as the international game. The Ranji Trophy, the premier first-class competition, got underway on Sunday, and all eyes were on a small ground set in the middle of agricultural fields about three hours’ drive from New Delhi.
Tendulkar’s first innings in the village of Lahli lasted just seven balls and nine minutes, either side of tea. He made five before being bowled by Mohit Sharma, one of those fighting for a place on those three overseas tours. In all likelihood, it will be his last match for Mumbai, with only the two-Test farewell left.
But it is not only Tendulkar looking to keep time at bay. Zaheer Khan, who last played a Test nearly a year ago, is leading Mumbai, while Harbhajan Singh – who has slid down the spin ladder – took six for 54 in his first game for Punjab.
Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, the Delhi duo who are the most prolific opening combination in India’s Test history, will hope to make comebacks, as will Yuvraj Singh, whose battle with cancer has made him prominent off the playing field as well.
For batsmen young and old, experienced and hopeful, it is all about the No 4. For as long as most Indians can remember, it was Tendulkar’s spot. Which man can now convince himself that he is big enough to fill it?