Monday, February 27, 2006

England in India, 2006: A Preview

The India-England series is going to be an extremely interesting one for world cricket. At the start of the series, England is second in the ICC Test rankings and India is third. Only 2 points separate the two teams. A series win by England will consolidate its hold on the second spot while a series win by India will propel it to the second spot. On paper, the teams appear to be evenly matched, but then Test matches are seldom played on paper!

England have not won a test match in India for 21 years and with the personnel it has and given its rather disastrous start to the Tour, it is unlikely to win one this year! After having won its Tour opener against a weak CCI Team, England slumped to an embarassing defeat against a young Board Presidents' XI team. At the time of writing this, Treskotick is already back in England and that is a body blow for the team as he is England’s best player of spin. Vaughn’s dodgy knee has become dodgier. Pietersen is down with a sore back and is uncertain to play in Nagpur. Paul Collingwood is down with a sore back too. Besides these setbacks, a few players, including Simon Jones, have had a stomach bug.

A few things have gone right for India though. By confirming that they will play two openers and have Dravid come in at #3, they have junked the plan that led them astray in Pakistan. Despite Gambhir’s good showing in the tour game, the choice of Jaffer is a good one. Jaffer is in the form of his life and, provided he plays with a free and unburdened mind, he should do well. It appears as though he is hungry to regain his spot and, after nearly 4 years in the sidelines, a Hayden-like resurrection may well be in the offing.

In Pakistan, the Dravid-as-opener folly was adopted as a strategy aimed at accommodating Ganguly. Now, with Ganguly’s ouster, such bravado is unnecessary and the worlds’ best #3 (or second best, if one has Ponting as the best) can play at #3, where he should! With Ganguly gone, the captain and coach will have the dressing room to themselves. They can put their strategies and plans in place and build to the future. Team India looks fresh and revitalized. The accent is on youth blending with experience. The accent is on energy, commitment, flexibility, strategy and process. “Focus on the basics. Outcomes will follow”, seems to me to be the mantra.

After a long time, India’s pace attack looks solid and good. Even though India has Ajit Agarkar, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra and J. Balaji cooling their heels, the current India team has top talent in Irfan Pathan, S. Sreesanth, V. R. V. Singh and R. P. Singh. I believe the selectors missed a trick in not selecting Munaf Patel ahead of V.R.V.Singh, who had a listless outing for the Presidents’ XI against England. Munaf Patel, on the other hand, had the English batsmen ducking and weaving. But I think this is a moot point anyway, for it may well be Irfan Pathan and Sreesanth (and/or R. P. Singh) that play in the final XI. Pathan and Sreesanth are the form bowlers right now. Although Pathan has dropped his pace somewhat, he has made up for it by using the seam, the crease and the variations in his pace rather cleverly. After a lively presence in the one-dayers against Pakistan Sreesanth may be slightly ahead of R. P. Singh to grab the second pacers’ spot.

Even though the recently prolific Yuvraj is absent through injury, given Pathan’s and Dhoni’s recent exploits with the bat, India’s batting looks solid, with Sehwag, Jaffer, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Dhoni and Pathan forming the batting nexus. Instead of playing a Kaif or Raina at #6, ahead of Dhoni in the batting order, India should, I believe, bite the bullet, believe in the strengths of Jaffer, Pathan and Dhoni (as bats) and blood young Piyush Chawla. At 17 years and 67 days old, Piyush could well be the second youngest player to make his debut for India (behind Sachin Tendulkar)! And get this! If he plays in the first Test, he will be less than half Anil Kumble’s age! Talk of the master and the apprentice!

Without Treskothick, England are vulnerable against spin. Time and time again, they fell to the wiles of Kaneria on their tour of Pakistan. Together, Chawla and Kumble can make them dance. And for a bit of rest from that, they can be fed a dose of the wily Turbanator!

Piyush Chawla’s repertoire, line-length, his ability to bowl the googly on target from round the wicket (Tendulkar got out in exactly the same manner in the 2005 Challenger Series) as well as his current form (after an excellent showing in the recently concluded Under 19 World Cup) makes this the time for his initiation into the mens’ game!

England will fight and fight hard. The recent Ashes series has given the team resolve and a strong belief in themselves. Despite the bad outing in Pakistan, I think that that tour will have prepared them better for travels in the sub-continent. England probably have the best fast bowling attack in world cricket today. Overall, this team looks better balanced and better prepared to tackle India.

However, given the start that England has had, I’d find it hard to believe that the door which has now been left open, cannot be seized on by a hungry, young and revitalized India.

If India can maintain the pressure, wait for the right opportunity and seize their chances, this could be a 1-0 or a 2-0 outcome in favour of India.