Revenge is a dish best served cold. I suspect the Indian cricket team have been patiently planning for over a year to serve theirs to England."
From the moment they left London last August they've been waiting for this series, and when they do eventually step on to the field in Ahmedabad on November 15th for the first test match. I predict fireworks and some serious intent from the home side. Indian cricketers these days are no shrinking violets. Their pride was hurt badly last summer, not just by the manner of their 4-0 Test series defeat but the ridicule majority of the players suffered due to their below par performances. They will see this series as a massive opportunity to regain some of that pride. Something they only partially managed in the ODI series this time last year. England did suffer a 5-0 drubbing then, but it was in the 50 over format. The hosts will surely gain more satisfaction in inflicting similar damage in the longer form of the game. They have reason to be optimistic, they have more than just home advantage in their favour.
Taking the issue of payback aside for a minute, India desperately need to win the series for a more important reason. They currently languish 5th in the test rankings having been at the summit not that long ago. I'm sure climbing back up the rankings will be the primary issue on Indian Skipper MS Dhoni's agenda. That's not to say he or his team won't be playing mind games with the England camp. They will, and they have enough ammunition.
There is a fresh wound to be picked at in the England side from the recent self inflicted mishaps, involving Kevin Pieterson. The handling of the KP issue by the ECB has been detrimental to the England team. This is a crying shame for the management team and the players who've worked so hard to achieve the success to date. One of the founding principles of the Flower-Strauss reign, which took England to the dizzy heights of Test cricket supremacy was focus.
The focus on becoming the best in every format of cricket at all cost. Of course having world class players at their disposal helped, but this focus united them all. Somewhere along the line that focus was lost and that unity now has cracks which will take time to seal. Time they don't have. With the first Test just around the corner, it's difficult to see them regain that focus.
They need to, and fast. Because whilst I'm certain that Broad, KP, Swann, Anderson et al will put on a brave (mirror practiced) face, pull together and try their best to get along for this huge Test series in India. Reality is, it will be difficult and pulling together might not be enough! Why? Well,simply put the time and energy put into facilitating KP's "reintegration" might distract the England team from a few other pressing issues which might be testing.
Firstly, aside from the fact that India have not lost a home series against England for nearly 30 years. No ECB marketing lingo will hide the fact that a huge amount of psychological pressure has been placed on new skipper Alistair Cook. Being England test captain is a bit like being Batman in many ways. You have the difficult task of developing a dual personality (Player/Captain) overnight. Then there's the sleepless nights,(Just ask Nasser), the lack of friends(ask Athers), the sudden accumulation of adversaries (Ask KP) and the frustrating inability to please everyone (Ask KP again). This will be his first Test series in full charge, having being somewhat forced to go into battle without trying on Strauss' Bat suit for size.
Let's not mince words here, this will be the toughest gig of his career, and it remains to be seen if the heavy burden of captaincy affects his prolific run getting. I am however quietly optimistic about Cook's prospects as captain. He exudes a self assuring and calm demeanor not too dissimilar from Dhoni's, a good omen for success if there ever was one. Even if he's unsuccessful in this series, I suspect he will bounce back and eventually shape himself into a great leader. After all there is reason in keeping faith with the Essex lad, he's been one of the shining lights of English cricket over the last few years. I just hope the English fans don't turn their back on him if things go wrong in India. The press inevitably will.
Secondly, another worry for the visitors is the fact that England's new Batman is going into the Indian Assylum without a Robin. England are an opener short after the recent retirement of Strauss, leaving them with two risky casting options for the role. Do they go with an unknown Compton or stick the reliable Trott up the order? Both options are viable but not ideal. The youngster option leaves an inexperience player exposed whilst Trott's promotion may upset his routine and mindset of batting at 3. We all know he likes things a certain way, and lives in a world of his own. Why uproot him from that world? Why not leave him at 3 and just plant a new Root at the top of the order? Whatever the opinion, its an annoying itch for Chef and the England selectors. A solid England start to an innings can be demoralizing prospect for the fielding side, just ask the Aussies who played in the 2010/11 Ashes series. This is an itch therefore that requires attention and needs a good scratch.
Last but not least of England's problems are the much talked about Indian conditions. I have no doubt the pitches will specifically NOT suit the swing and pace of the England attack, a key component of India's demise last summer. The question is, will England be able to cope with a muted and diminished pace attack on dead, slow pitches? Will Swann and Patel be up to the task? Only time will tell, probably in spectacular fashion given the emotionally charged nature of the series.
Clearly England have issues to deal with, but by no means should that delude us into thinking that India don't. Their demotion from 1 to 5 in the test rankings suggests as much. However, whilst the Indian armour is by no means impenetrable, unfortunately the controversy cloud hovering over the England camp will be the main attraction come November.
Luckily for India the media focus will not be on Sehwag's inconsistency, Tendulkar's age or on the various other minor distractions that can hamper the meticulous preparation of a team before a huge test series. The magnifying glass will instead be on KP and his interaction with his team mates. It will be on every English huddle, every KP celebration and on every game of musical chairs being played next to KP up on the balcony.
Furthermore aside from the glare of the cameras, more so than ever before the World of twitter will be closely watching. Putting all these ingredients into the mix, this Test series promises to be a mouthwatering contest. One that regardless of our respective, humble and mostly useless opinions, will be able to enjoy together. Whether it turns out to be a Bollywood blockbuster or a historic England series win in India? In the best year of sport in my lifetime, all I can really say is, let the games begin one last time!
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