The first Test of the series between India and England for Pataudi Trophy begins on August 1 at Birmingham, Edgbaston. True to tradition, the match would start on a Wednesday in the country where the game originated and the fans are eagerly looking forward to an exciting contest between the old capital of new international cricket and the game’s new power centre.
A Test series against England on their home turf never fails to bring its own dose of memories and nostalgia for the average Indian cricket fan. After making entry into the rarefied world of Test cricket in 1932, it took India nearly four decades to register their first win in a Test match there.
During the days prior to 1971, it was the norm for visitors to lose matches as could be seen from the fact that they lost 15 out of 19 Tests played, and the even the four drawn matches were on account of the mercy of weather gods.
The pitches were so full of grass that it is difficult to distinguish them from the outfield, the overcast atmosphere favouring seam and swing bowling and gusts of cold biting wind that is an essential feature of English summer, together contribute to making life miserable for the average Indian player who is used to having sun on his back and ball coming onto the bat at below the knee level.
Matters started improving from 1980s onwards though Test match wins were the exception rather than the rule. The presence of world class players such as Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev ensured that India were no longer pushovers while at the same time England slipped substantially from the lofty perch of being one of the top sides in the world.
Despite this, victories in Test matches were hard to come by with only six Test matches being won by India in England. A glance at the record of the side would indicate that tourists invariably lost the first Test and found that the series was over by the time they grew accustomed to the conditions there. Though there have been the rare exceptions to this rule when the side fought back after losing the first Test and in one instance even winning opening encounter (in 1986), the fact remains that Indian players are usually slow to get off the blocks while touring England.
How would the Virat Kohli-led Indian team fare against the home side skippered by Joe Root? If one goes by ICC Test rankings therein no doubt that India, placed No. 1, are the favourite to win the series. However, unlike the seedings in individual sports, ranking of cricket teams seldom convey the true picture nor can they be used for accurately predicting the outcome of any match.
Though England are presently placed at the fifth place, they have the advantage of playing at home, which give them the added benefit of familiarity with the playing conditions besides the head start on account of being able to prepare a pitch to suit their strengths. Thus, the tourists will have to overcome these hurdles as well if they are to triumph over their opponents. It is this added challenge that makes an away win in Test cricket a cherished one for the players as well as for the followers of the game.
On paper as well as on present form, India look a stronger side than the hosts. In Kohli, the visitors have one of the best batsmen in contemporary cricket. He belongs to the new breed of Indian players who believe in attacking the bowling and establishing their dominance over the bowlers from the word go. He had a poor series when India toured the Old Blighty in 2014 as English seam bowlers, James Anderson in particular, figured out how to shackle him effectively. As Anderson himself admitted recently, it would be foolish to expect that the tactics they had employed four years ago would work now. Besides Kohli has evolved during this period as a complete batsman, and he too would be looking forward to erase the bad memories of the last tour with some top quality performances in this series.
Indian batting order has a solid look about it with Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay at the top, followed by Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and K L Rahul, besides wicketkeeper Dinesh Karthik. The opening duo is a captain's dream, as they complement each other in their respective batting styles besides making things difficult for opposing side's skipper and bowlers as a left-and-right-hand combination. Dhawan is the more mercurial of the two and while he can be an asset when he gets going, the possibility of loss of an early wicket can never be ruled out when he walks out to take the strike. Vijay, on the other hand, has been a more consistent performer, though his tendency to play off the front foot might land him in some difficulties against the English seam bowlers on helpful tracks.
Onus on Pujara
Though Pujara replaced Rahul Dravid in the crucial No. 3 spot, he has not yet been able to step into the shoes of his more illustrious predecessor when it comes to scoring runs. He has all the attributes of a Test match batsman as he is blessed with a solid defence, infinite patience and a good range of strokes all around the wicket. However, he has not been able to seize the scoring opportunities that have come his way with the required alacrity, which has resulted in him not being able to have the upper hand over the bowlers. This tendency to be too obsessed with technical perfection to the exclusion of everything else had spoilt the career of Sanjay Manjrekar and it would be a great loss if Pujara too goes the same way. This series offers him an opportunity not only to show the critics that he can score runs outside the Indian sub continent but also dominate the bowlers.
Rahane had a good series when India toured England four years ago and he would be looking forward to a run of high scores in Test cricket that would elevate him to the ranks of great batsmen. Rahane is at that stage in his career when he should be pushing himself to attain greater heights by scoring tons by the dozen and this tour would reveal whether he would join the ranks of outstanding batsmen or remain as an also ran. Rahul, on the other hand, would be looking forward to cementing his place in the playing eleven. Karthik, who has been given another opportunity to don the wicketkeeping gloves in Test cricket, can be expected to go all out to prove his mettle both with the bat as well as behind the stumps.
On the bowling side, India would be looking to the spinners to lead the battle. Though Ravichandran Aswin, with 316 wickets in Tests, is the backbone of Indian bowling attack, all attention would be on Kuldeep Yadav, who has created an air of mystery around him with his chinamen and wrong ones. A left arm wrist spinner who bowls chinaman is a rarity in any form of cricket and it is to Kuldeep’s credit that he has mastered this difficult art to near perfection. This tour offers a wonderful launching pad for his career and if he succeeds, he would be able to do to left-arm wrist spin bowling what Shane Warne could do to classic leg spin variety. On the fast bowling side, the combination of Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami possess the experience and ability to script wins.
So far as England is concerned, their batting hinges around Root, who has made great strides and is presently ranked alongside Kohli and Kane Williamson as the top batsmen in world cricket. He would be looking for runs from Alastair Cook, his former captain and one of the most experienced opening batsmen in the game, at the top of the order. Opening the innings with Cook would, in all probability, be Keaton Jennings, who made his debut against Pakistan earlier this year. The England middle order comprising David Malan, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali and Jonny Bairstow does not possess the experience and solidity of their Indian counterparts.
Advantage England in pace department
If there is one area where the hosts appear to score over their rivals, it is the pace bowling department. In Anderson and Stuart Broad, England have two exceptional fast bowlers who possess the experience and skill to make life difficult for any set of batsmen. They would be supported by Ben Stokes, who can also do a fair bit of big hitting with the bat, along with Jamie Porter and Sam Curran, the new kids on the block. However, the spin cupboard appears a bit bare, with the attack having to depend on the off spin of Moeen Ali and the leg brakes of Adil Rashid.
Finally, a word about the weather in England, which always plays a decisive role in any series against India. England has been enjoying conditions akin to a minor heat wave and the conditions at Edgbaston would not make any seam bowler rub his hands in glee. Hence it appears that spin, rather than swing bowling, would play a greater role in deciding the winners this time around.
Thus, on the whole, it can be seen that India enjoy a slight, if not distinct, advantage over the hosts as the series is about to commence. But cricket, being a game of glorious uncertainties and tantalising turnarounds, is capable of springing a surprise at any time. It is the fervent wish of every Indian cricket fan that India bring home the Pataudi Trophy that England retained after winning the series in 2014. Here is wishing Kohli and his boys Good luck and Godspeed as they embark on this mission.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)