This has not been a good year for England cricket. Having reached the Test match heights following their home humiliation of India, they were brought down first by Pakistan in the Middle East and then at home by South Africa. And on and on rumbled the Kevin Pietersen saga, resolved in principle but not yet demonstrably. The captain who took them to the top with such honest determination has gone, his game on the wane (although he managed more runs than any other England batsman last summer) and his spirit and energy sapped.
Against this background England arrive in India to begin 15 months of cricket that could either establish them once more as the premier Test match side in the world or leave them jostling in the middle of the pack.
They will find opponents on whose behalf a good game is already being talked but who in reality are in significant upheaval as a formidable side, growing old together, fragments. Gone already from one of the most vaunted batting line-ups in the game's history are Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. The new England captain, Alastair Cook, was not yet five years old when Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut, and this master batsman is now having his stumps rattled on a regular basis by bowlers he would once have picked off for a pastime. The two openers, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, have not scored a Test century between them in two years, and Zaheer Khan, their premier pace bowler, is on his last legs. Virat Kohli, unquestionably a potential genius, cannot compensate on his own.
India's runs may not flow as once they did so readily and, often, beautifully. Instead the threat, so they say, will come from spin against which England players, as a breed, have been technically inept. Ravichandran Ashwin, the tall offspinner with the hidden doosra, has just been elevated to the highest level of contract by the BCCI and he will be complemented by Pragyan Ojha's left-arm spin. England will see overtones of the manner in which Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman destroyed them in the UAE.
Pitches will be slow, it is said, and will spin: Kohli has said as much, citing home advantage and the manner in which India were given flat decks in their warm-up matches in England and then encountered green tops in the Tests themselves. That is fair enough.
In the Emirates England were undone as much by the manner in which the ball skidded on low than spin per se and in Sri Lanka last spring, after an indifferent start, they began to cope better in more orthodox Asian conditions. If, then, India should be careful what they wish for, it would be a mistake for England to go into the series believing that it is necessary to change the blueprint that brought them their good times of the past few years in order to succeed now. England's bowling strength comes in their pace attack, backed up by Graeme Swann. In the seven matches in which Swann has been partnered with Monty Panesar, they have not been successful once.
Pitches in India have always been slow, almost always devoid of grass and, in the absence of a good home pace attack (as opposed to individuals), invariably prepared for their spinners. The only two times England won a series in India in the past 80 years provide salutary lessons, however.
In 1976-77, in which Tony Greig's England overcame arguably the finest spin attack of all time, in their own conditions, to win 3-1, Derek Underwood took 29 wickets in five Tests. But John Lever and Bob Willis also took 46 wickets between them from near enough the same number of overs combined, while Chris Old's pace won the third Test. Eight years later, under David Gower, the industry of the spinners Phil Edmonds and Pat Pocock took the plaudits but no one took more wickets at a cheaper cost than Norman Cowans, or Neil Foster, whose seam clinched the series.
So the idea that England might go into the Tests either with two spinners included in a four-man attack or that they jettison a batsman to make room for a third seamer ought to be rejected. Instead it could be Steven Finn who provides the biggest challenge for India's batsmen. Well beaten as England were in the one-day series in India a year ago, it was Finn who in the limited opportunity provided by that form of cricket, managed to rattle the opposition, even on sluggish pitches. He was quick through the air and found lift where others could not: Willis was similar. The newer Indian batsmen, and some old stagers, have shown vulnerability against the short ball.
However Finn and the other bowlers will need the security of good totals if they are to flourish. Batting in India is not about strike rates but occupation of the crease. Pietersen may provide the pyrotechnics at some stage but it is the workers – Cook, Jonathan Trott and perhaps Nick Compton – who will provide the bedrock. If they come to terms with the conditions, England can win this series. If not, there is little the bowlers can do.
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image: © JJ Hall