India v England series preview - by Chetan Narula
Latest series odds from bet365:
India 1/2, Draw 7/2, England 4/1
First Test: India 13/10, Draw 7/4, England 4/1
4-0. This was the score line when India last engaged England in battle for Test supremacy, and in many ways, it made for a poignant marker in cricket history.
It was the beginning of the end of the great Indian middle order, one hastened by another body blow shortly afterwards in Australia. With eight return Tests, this time in the sub-continent, most people will tell you this winter for team India is all about revenge. Truth be told, a lot more is at stake.
A lot has changed for the 'Men in Blue' since that embarrassing score line got converted to 8-0. And one isn't necessarily talking about good things. In fact, it should be singular for under that column, there is only a singly entry. Cheteshwar Pujara came along, putting a first brick in place where Rahul Dravid left a gaping hole. His calm arrival on the scene, and subsequent success at number three, soothed many nerves. There is hope still.
Worry is greater though, and not because Suresh Raina failed to do the same for VVS Laxman, but that there are now more than two spots to fill. Atleast eight of the first eleven players for the first Test at Ahmedabad pick themselves, but the remaining seven in the squad give much reason for concern.
That puts nearly half the Test team in peril. There is major uncertainty regarding their openers, the third-choice spin option/selection is a dubious one, and as is his wont before any major series, there is a fitness question mark over Zaheer Khan.
Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag average over 50 as an opening pair, and the advantage for them is that there are eight more Tests before India step out for an overseas tour. Even so, the manner in which opportunities were wasted during the New Zealand series was worrisome.
The new selection panel under Sandeep Patil is quite seriously looking at Murali Vijay, Abhinav Mukund and Shikhar Dhawan. And if that doesn’t goad Gambhir and Sehwag into getting their heads down to the job, nothing ever will.
The key for India in that 8-0 loss was not being able to make good starts, and then there was nothing to capitalise on for the rest. On flatter tracks now, this opening pair should be able to redeem itself, but one eye will be on the clock that is ticking down. And that can never be a good point of view.
It doesn’t help that Sachin Tendulkar is also on the worry list. After holding off his retirement thoughts for long, he surprised one and all with an announcement after the Kiwi series, that the England rubber will be the one where he takes a call on his career.
Millions of fans therefore would want him to score ample runs in this series, so that he can milk out another couple of years from his bat.
The selection of Harbhajan Singh poses a quandary both for team management and selection panel. For the latter, it shows that performance wasn’t a criterion in his selection and that India’s spin cupboard is completely bare. It is here that their decision to not give an honest chance to budding spinners in England’s practice games comes up for some censure.
That is a debate for another day. At present they will be keen to see how Mahendra Singh Dhoni solves this riddle. Play 'Bhajji' with Ravichandran Ashwin, with the returning Yuvraj Singh as the anchor, or go in with the pairing of Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha? Despite temptation, it will be a surprise if he goes in with that first choice of spinners. England’s right-handed batsmen will only be too pleased if Ojha doesn’t play.
Then again, that is just one spinner we are talking about. And to think, even Piyush Chawla made them dance in Sri Lanka during the ICC World Twenty20. Of course this is a different set of players, but the problem is now more mental than it is technical. If you are playing England, that too on wickets alien to them, pack your side with slow bowlers, then sit back and watch. That seems to be the mantra and India, at home, have mastered this art over the years.
In that, Alastair Cook couldn't have asked for a tougher first full assignment. Andrew Strauss leaves a huge hole at the top, not just with his batting but also his leadership and experience. Nick Compton is a shoe-in to replace him, but again, how many spinners has he faced in county cricket? Perhaps he might be saved by the new ball, and that is where the visitors will need to capitalize.
They need their best batsmen at the top, first up, when the red cherry is at its hardest. If Cook, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell step up, it will ease up pressure on the rest. That would also free Kevin Pietersen to do his own thing, and the man will want to provide a miracle or two, just for kicks.
Injury concerns for Steve Finn aside, England’s bowling is of lesser concern. Yes, They know what combination they are going in with, as Samit Patel slots in comfortably at number six. But does that give them higher penetration than the Indian bowling? Maybe not. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan caused enough trouble to the Indian batsmen in England last time around, and this series will be a little tougher than that. It is where Graeme Swann will assume prime importance. He has been called a ‘great spinner’ by many and this is where that tag will be tested.
It is a contest that promises much fun. India are riddled with puzzles of their own, their spinners will pose some to the English batsmen on slow turners, and Andy Flower will hope his lads can give back some answers. Order some popcorn now.
© Cricket World 2012
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