Eighteen days remain for the Indian team to gird up its loins and prepare to join battle again. Their opponents this time will be the West Indies. The five-Test series will be fought out on the Windies' home turf. Both teams have just lost a series apiece, India being beaten 0-2 by South Africa and the West Indies going under 2-3 to Australia.
Home does not really mean the Windies are at an advantage; they lost their first series in 15 years at home in 1995, having managed to hold their own at every venue until then. India have played a total of 65 Tests against the Windies so far, 37 at home and 28 in the West Indies. They have won seven, lost 27 and drawn 31. Their record at home reads five wins, 18 draws and 14 losses. In the Caribbean, India have won twice, drawn 13 times and lost 13.
India's first win over the West Indies came in the Caribbean under Ajit Wadekar in 1971, the tour which saw the emergence of Sunil Gavaskar. The other victory in the West Indies was equally sweet and historic -- they became the second team in Test history to score over 400 in the fourth innings to win a Test. This Test also led Clive Lloyd to conclude that spin could never win a Test; the result was the four-man pace battery that took the West Indies where no other team had been before. So much for history.
In terms of leadership, neither team has shown itself to have a master tactician at the helm. Walsh is the more experienced campaigner but has not shown a great degree of imagination in the two series he has led after being appointed (he did lead in one series against India in 1989 but that was because Richardson was taking a break from international cricket and Haynes had refused the reins). The same goes for Tendulkar; his lack of innovation may be because he is young and only in his fourth series as skipper. They both face equal pressure at home -- the home crowds of both teams are equally fanatical when it comes to cricket.
The Windies' attack will once again be spearheaded by Ambrose and Walsh. Bishop has not shown any degree of constancy in recent times though he has, at times, mostly unexpectedly, come up trumps. The spin of Adams, Chanderpaul and Hooper should not bother the Indians. Kenny Benjamin has been plagued by injury and Cuffy has not set the Thames on fire. A lot depends on whether the West Indies would be willing to try out some new bowlers with a view to building for the future. Else, it will be up to Curtley and Courtney.
India have just the two pacemen to look to and they are coming off a tour where they have carried an enormous burden. Kumble has not done much to inspire confidence and thus if bowling resources are matched, the West Indies do seem to have the better ammunition even if we are talking of two aging pacemen who are unlikely to be around much longer. It remains to be seen whether Joshi will be given a role in the Tests.
Batting has been a big problem for the West Indies; not once did they cross 400 in Australia. Shuffling their batting order in Australia to shield an out-of-form Lara led to the in-form Chanderpaul being thrust up the order and failing. Only Hooper was consistent. Campbell did well until the one-day series began; then, trying to adapt to the shorter version of the game, he came unstuck and his failures carried over into the remaining Tests as well. The number of times the team collapsed is legion; having three men in their ranks who average over 50 in Test cricket was of no use. The only problem which seems to have solved to some extent is that of an opening pair; Campbell and Samuels should suffice.
India have much the better batting line-up on paper. They have a reliable one-drop in Dravid and the skipper has been in fairly good nick. Azharuddin has made good on occasion though he now seems unwilling to stay and build a long innings unless it comes through wielding the long handle. There is a problem as to who will open but India have some depth in their line-up though they would not have forgotten that score of 66 in the first Test of the series which just got over. Collapses are just as endemic to them.
Where does that leave us? Fielding -- both teams are equally good or bad. The West Indies can be dreadful on occasion; India do not sink to those depths. Both sides have fairly competent men behind the stumps, provided Murray plays and not Browne. Thus, there are two equally matched teams which are going out to match wits in the middle. The difference between the teams will be individual performances.
And here we cannot avoid mentioning the Lara factor. He has been off-colour for a long time and only came good in Australia at a point when it was of no use. He has a great deal of influence on the rest of the line-up -- at Adelaide, when the Windies lost by an innings and 183 runs, a loose stroke from him led to a collapse that saw the team bundled out for 130. Lara has been getting out so cheaply there have been suggestions that his 375 and 501 were made against low-grade attacks. Such suggestions have to sting. If he does get going, then India could be in for a rough time. But that is a very big IF. And I would not bet my last dollar on it.