India tends to treat the first Test as a warm-up, which costs us dearly.
England arrived in Australia four weeks before the first Test of the current Ashes series. It played three first-class matches to acclimatise. Still, there was the first innings blip in the first Test at the Gabba, which the team managed to pull out of with aplomb. By the time of the second Test at Adelaide, England was ready for the innings-win. It got thrashed in the next at Perth but bounced back in Melbourne with another innings-win. The important thing is that Englandâs management gave the team enough room to regroup and recover. Unlike Indiaâs.
India began the South Africa tour with the usual: No warm-up match and a massive defeat in the first Test. That was in sync with the tours to Sri Lanka in 2008, when we lost the first Test by an innings and 239 runs, and in 2010, when again the first Test was lost, and the tour to Australia in 2007. The glorious exceptions have been the last tour to New Zealand, where we won the first but drew the next two on pitches like those back home, and the previous tour to South Africa in 2006-07, when we won the first, but slipped to shoddy defeats in the next two.
Data from Cricinfo shows that on the 16 overseas tours since 2000, leaving out those to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, India lost the first Test on eight. That is 50 per cent of the first Tests lost. The teamâs performance improves considerably from the second Test onwards. Of the 35 such Tests played, we lost only 12 (34 per cent), while drawing 13 and winning as many as 10.
There was a period between 2003 and 2006, which is also Indiaâs golden period in overseas tours (a drawn series in Australia, a victory in Pakistan), when we did not lose the first Test on eight tours, but the story before and after has been distressing. The batting averages tell their own story. Rahul Dravidâs average in the first Tests of tours is 10 below his overall. V V S Laxman averages 37.86 in the first Tests and 56.30 in the second (see how he turned around the second in South Africa).
Before this tour to South Africa, India had last played a Test out of the subcontinent in March 2009. The team was unlikely to lose its number one ranking despite losing this series, but the legitimacy of that ranking was being questioned by many. It had won only one Test on all previous tours to South Africa and lost every series there. Yet, coach Gary Kirsten had to beg and plead for some extra preparation time there. That little time was utilised with video analysis, computer analysis, net sessions and the like â none of it was spent playing a real match, which has no substitute.
That makes one wonder if the BCCI thinks it is all right to treat the first Test as the warm-up game. It means no time is spent playing matches which do not earn any money for the board. It may not be good for the team, but it works for the accountant.