In the old days, September would mark the beginning of the new Indian cricket season. Cricketers after being away from the game for about six months and busy at their place of work, would take out their spotlessly clean flannels and shoes and prepare in real earnest for the stern tests ahead.
The established stars would look optimistically to representing the country in the Test matches against the visiting side while the others would look upon their performances in the Ranji Trophy and Duleep Trophy games to boost their chances of becoming international players. There was a perceptible excitement in the air even for the cricket fans who had been deprived of action involving the Indian stars for a long time.
These days, of course, there is no season per se. Cricket is played around the year with every country involved in tours, Tests, tournaments, bilateral contests of ODIs and T-20 internationals and other sundry engagements. At times we have had all ten Test playing countries being engaged at the same time.
India being the nerve centre of international cricket and its financial powerhouse is easily the most popular side and even as I write this the New Zealand A team is in this country for a series of matches.
The fact however remains that despite playing a number of international matches including the Champions Trophy, India have not played a Test match since the final Test against Australia at New Delhi in March. Limited over games do have their charm and none can dispute their enormous popularity, but Test matches have an aura all their own.
Cricketers admit that despite the popularity and the huge amounts of money associated with the shorter formats of the game, nothing gives them more satisfaction than a good performance at the Test level. It separates the men from the boys, so to say, and from this angle the 2013-14 season could well be a very important one for the Indian team.
As I said the Indians have not played a Test since March and their next match is not until November when they take on West Indies in a hastily arranged two-match series at home before going to South Africa. That trip, however, hangs in the balance at the moment though one hopes it comes through for it will provide the ultimate test for the Indians.
That tour is going to be crucial for Indian cricket in more ways than one. For starters, India don’t have a very encouraging record in that country, having won but two and lost seven of 15 Tests played there over the last 21 years. Moreover, South Africa at the moment at firmly perched on top of the ICC Test rankings, well ahead of India who recently slid to third place following England’s thrashing of Australia.
Even as India completed a clean sweep of the four-Test series against Australia earlier this year, the cynics were already talking of ''wait till the cricketers play in South Africa'' fully aware that Kallis and Amla, Smith and de Villiers, Steyn and Morkel and Philander would prove to be very different – and difficult – opposition.
India, however, can take heart from the fact that their victories in South Africa have been notched up on their last two tours of that country giving rise to the hope that they have finally come to terms with conditions there. Moreover for the first time they emerged with a shared series the last time out there three years ago.
But I would like to think that there is one more reason to be optimistic and that is the state of Indian cricket today. Whatever the shenanigans the administrators may indulge in, off the field the cricketers have kept their focus on the game as it should be played. The impressive showing in limited overs cricket is something to be enthused about, but one has the distinct feeling that great days are ahead for the Test squad too.
The loss to England in late 2012 – the first time they won a Test series in this country for 28 years – was no doubt a major setback but it must not be forgotten that it was sandwiched by six straight wins against New Zealand and Australia. The triumph against Australia was particularly pleasing for whatever the woes associated with the current Aussie squad, they are never easy to beat and to win every match of a four-Test series constitutes a notable achievement.
What made it even more commendable was it was achieved by a side in transition. Some stalwarts had retired, other stars – or in some cases superstars – were out of favour following failures and so it was largely a reconstituted squad that played in the Tests last season and overall, it was a most encouraging show. And now that the youngsters have performed well and the team is wearing a balanced and well settled look, one can reasonably accept a better showing in future – even in South Africa.
And what makes the Indian cricket fan that much more optimistic is that the reserve strength is very strong going by recent events. There are a number of young players coming up and the Sandip Patil-led selection committee has made it clear that they are going to follow a youth policy.
Looking ahead and not turning the clock back is going to be their mantra. And in this regard it was great to read about coach Duncan Fletcher endorsing this move in a most enthusiastic manner. Impressed by the boys faring admirably on the A tour of South Africa last month, Fletcher has advised the selectors to keep giving more opportunities to young players instead of falling back to those currently out of the side.
He also advocated that current Indian players as well as members of the A team should form the crux of the Indian squad in the near future. Don’t look back, stick to the youth policy and it will augur well for Indian cricket is the gist of the message that Fletcher has conveyed to the selectors and in this upbeat scenario, with everyone working in the same direction, it is easy to see why there is much optimism about Indian cricket’s future.