The last time India lost 2 home Tests in a series was when Ricky Ponting's Australians visited India late in 2004. Before that, it was Hansie Cronje's South Africans in 2000. Sachin Tendulkar resigned as captain after the Bangalore Test in 2000 (a 5th consecutive defeat). Sourav Ganguly led India in their next two series against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. In 2004-05, Ganguly continued to captain India for the rest of the 2004-05 season. He even led the team to Zimbabwe in 2005. He was sacked as captain at the end of that series. Since then, India's captaincy has changed hands under happier circumstances. Rahul Dravid quit after beating England in England in 2007, while Anil Kumble retired in the midst of a dominant Indian performance against the visiting Australians in 2008. Mahendra Singh Dhoni took over and has led India to unprecedented success. Perhaps it is worth revisiting a little bit of history here, because I sense that we have lost perspective substantially (as we normally do) with India losing Tests against a good English side (but not one in the class of Ponting's 2004 Australians).
This chart shows Series and Test results under each Indian captain. In recent years, the Away results have improved, I would argue in real terms. Under Ganguly, India won 11 Away Tests out of 28, but 6 out of those 11 were in Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. Since Ganguly was sacked, under Dravid, Kumble and Dhoni, India have built a 12-17 Away record in 43 Tests. Only 2 of those 12 wins came in Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. Whats more, until recently, that Away record was a winning one - something unprecedented in India's cricket history.
The Tendulkar-Dravid-Ganguly-Laxman-Kumble-Zaheer-Harbhajan-Sehwag-Dhoni Test era is now at an end. Who knows, Sehwag may blast a big century at Nagpur and India may win to restore parity in the series, but even if they do, most of those players have left the team, and the ones who remain are not going to last very long. Zaheer and Harbhajan have been dropped. Tendulkar will quit very soon.
What of Dhoni? Opinion is divided on Dhoni. For most of his tenure, Dhoni's unflappable calm seemed to rub off on India's headline-hungry corps of reporters. Until the massive defeats in England and Australia, his authority was unquestioned. Since then they have complained that he's too unflappable in word and deed, that his keeping is no good, and that his batting is terrible.
There is undoubted quality in the new Indian batsmen. It used to be that the ability of Indian batsmen to score in front of the wicket against fast bowling was in question. I am not talking about technique or the ability to play the short ball (a problem which very few Indian batsmen have actually had in my view - it is not an especially Indian problem), but about having strokes in front of the wicket against bowling at 90 miles per hour. VVS had this ability, as does Sehwag. Virat Kohli has demonstrated this ability amply. One of the reasons why the selectors (and Dhoni) persisted with Suresh Raina as much as they did, was because he has this ability. Its the same with Yuvraj Singh. The problems faced by India when it comes to finding Test batsmen are not what they used to be. There is stroke making talent aplenty. The question now, is whether these players have staying power. Whether, like Tendulkar once did famously against Curtly Ambrose in West Indies in 1997, they have the discipline to survive a session - to shelve their strokes and wait if they realize that a bowler is bowling too well. Tendulkar made 12 runs in that session. Imagine. The Tendulkar of 1997. He was 24 years old at the time, the same age as Kohli, Pujara and Rahane are now.
The bowling is a bigger worry. For many years, India could find decent spin bowlers to support Anil Kumble. Before Harbhajan Singh came along as a massively talented off spinner, Venkatpathy Raju, Rajesh Chauhan and a host of other spinners backed Kumble. It remains an open question as to where the next potential Anil Kumble will come from. Over the last 6 years, India have benefited additionally from having Zaheer Khan mature into a world class bowler. That transition came after he was dropped from the side in 2006. Does Zaheer have another phase in him? If he does, I doubt that it will be more than a couple of years. Glenn McGrath retired at 36.
The selectors have dropped an interesting set of players. One gets the sense that they were much surer about who they wanted to drop, than who they wanted to pick as replacements. They have chosen a fast bowler on performance, a leg spinner in hope, and a batsman partly on performance and partly, one suspects, on character. Ravindra Jadeja seems to me to be India's Mohammad Hafeez. Of the three, only Parvinder Awana is likely to get a Test debut. From what little one has seen of him, Awana looks every inch the journeyman medium-fast bowler.
A lot of has been said about how India have been in denial. Some have said it better than others. But perhaps the selectors and the team management will have to lower their sights for a bit. Play makeshift players in some positions again. Ravichandran Ashwin is too good to be dropped and not good enough to be a specialist spinner. Virender Sehwag is also too good to be dropped, but a luxury against the new ball - one India can no longer afford given the inexperience in the middle order.
Ashwin will go one of two ways. He will either have a long term stint in the Test team as a Ravi Shastri like player, or he will lose his spot just like Irfan Pathan did. Irfan was another player who was too good to be dropped, but not good enough to be a specialist Test bowler.
A lot will depend on the wicket at Nagpur. But in the next 12 months or so, India will need to play as if they are a new team. It is time to be uncertain again. For the established players, perhaps this means new challenges. For MS Dhoni, it might mean quitting the Test team. India may want to invest in a Test captain in Virat Kohli the way South Africa invested in Graeme Smith. Kohli could do a lot worse than seek a County contract for 2013 to play 3 months of Championship cricket.
For Nagpur, hopefully the team management will build on the signals that the selectors have sent. The following batting order may be appropriate:
Correction: I mistakenly wrote that the venue for the last Test is Chennai. The last Test is at Nagpur. Thanks to all who pointed out the mistake.