Every time India won a match in the just concluded Test series against Australia the cynics kept reminding us ''wait till we play in South Africa'', making it clear that the result there would be very different.
The pessimism is in a way understandable against the background of various recent factors – our whitewash losses in England and Australia, the considerable difference between our home and away record, our dismal record in South Africa and that country being the clear No.1 Test team right now.
The optimist in me however, is willing to stick his neck out and predict that the Indians would do well in South Africa, later this year. There is something about the current squad that makes one feel that while it is quite unbeatable at home, it also has the qualities and credentials to perform admirably abroad.
The transition phase that followed the retirement of several stalwarts in recent years and the ousting of some senior players due to lack of form, is almost over and the team is now having the looks of a balanced and well set unit. In fact, I would have liked India to take on South Africa right now, in an effort to keep the momentum going with their confidence levels sky high.
It is never easy to do well after superstars one by one leave the scene. Just look at the travails that Australia has been going through in the last few years following the retirements of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist, Brett Lee, Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey.
During virtually the same period, India have the lost the services of Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, either through retirements or lack of form. But the team has regrouped principally because the youngsters have delivered.
Admittedly, the two bad reverses in Australia and England stick out like a sore thumb but the fact remains that India were for some time the No. 1 Test team in the world and, there is no reason to believe that they can’t be on the pedestal once again.
Indeed the climb back could already have started with the rise to No.3 in the latest ICC rankings.
The nucleus of the touring squad for South Africa should revolve round the team that so emphatically won the series against Australia: Surely the opening pair of Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay shouldn’t be disturbed whatever the supporters of Sehwag and Gambhir might say.
They have performed commendably at home and they should be given the opportunity to succeed in South Africa. Of course, coming up against Dale Steyn and company in South Africa will be very different from facing fast bowlers on Indian pitches, but then that is the challenge facing Dhawan and Vijay and they will have to rise up to it.
And now with the transition phase virtually over there should be no more looking back which means Unmukt Chand as reserve opener. The Under-19 World Cup-winning captain could well be the next biggest thing to happen to Indian cricket.
Cheteswar Pujara has already given the impression that he has the game to succeed even abroad. It is hard to believe that a batsman with an average of 65 after 13 Tests does not have the technique and temperament to be among the runs on faster, bouncier tracks. Much the same can be said about Virat Kohli who is mentally very strong.
Against Sachin Tendulkar there has to be a question mark. He will be well into his 41st year as he faces up to the trio of Steyn, Mornie Morkel and Vernon Philander, and overall his record in South Africa does not match up to his career average. He certainly has not done badly as five hundreds in 15 Tests at an average of 46 will confirm, but all this was achieved during his peak period.
Now that he is clearly past his best, his reflexes have predictably slowed down and runs are hard to come by, it is unlikely that he will contribute in like manner this time too. Reserve batsmen could include the likes of Manoj Tiwari and Ajinkya Rahane and it could be a baptism of fire for them should they get the chance.
Doubts will also remain as to Dhoni’s ability to come good with the bat given the considerable disparity between his record at home and away.
Overall, however, the batting could just about hold its own, encouraged also by the fact that India drew the last Test series in South Africa – the first time in five visits they came back with a squared contest. It is the bowling I feel that could well be the trump card and hold its own in South Africa.
Indian bowling has always upstaged Indian batting in South Africa, right from the first visit there in 1992-93 when Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble finished among the wickets. In subsequent visits Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, S Sreesanth, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh have frequently won duels with the much vaunted South African batting line-up.
And as the above facts underline, it is with pace rather than with spin that India will have to take on South Africa. Given his talent and from what we have seen so far Bhuvneshwar Kumar could well be the key bowler. And if he could have a fit Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron bowling from the other end much the better.
I, however, predict that this time Ravichandran Ashwin will come back with a big haul. The incentive of being the fastest Indian to 100 Test wickets – he currently has 92 from just 16 matches - should spur him on to great deeds given that his confidence level with his recent successes will be sky high.
And the fact that traditionally the playing eleven in Test matches in South Africa has included three pacers and a lone spinner means that it is unlikely that either Ravindra Jadeja and Pragyan Ojha will have a major role to play.