Preview: India vs. England, 1st Test at Ahmedabad
The last time England and India locked horns, the former thumped the opposition 4-0. That was more than a year ago, and for two sides in transition, there’s no better time to test their mettle in arguably the most unforgiving conditions in the world. ANT SIMS previews the first Test.
The series between India and England hasn’t even started yet, but already the reminiscent rhetoric is getting tired. It’s been 30 years since the English managed a victory on Indian soil, and while the words “revenge” have been flung about following India’s thumping on English soil a few months ago, there is more to the series than payback.
Both sides are in a transitional phase. England is on its first away tour under the guidance of new Test captain Alastair Cook, and India is still looking to manage the retirement of stalwart players – all while drafting in youngsters hopefully to become legends in their own right one day.
England hasn’t had the best time since arriving in India. Between its leading bowlers breaking down and many of its players struggling with the infamous Delhi Belly, the warm-up matches haven’t given all the players the preparation they would have wanted. But the stage has been set for what can be expected: runs, and loads of them, if only England can overcome its mental weakness against spin.
England drew all three warm-up matches, but faced very little spin bowling. It was spinners who brought down the players earlier in the year when they lost 4-0 to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, and captain Alastair Cook has admitted he’d have liked his charges to have had to play against proper spinners a bit more ahead of the Test.
"Clearly we can't control the standard of the opposition," Cook said. "We would have liked to have faced more spin in these matches, but that hasn't happened. If anyone has been watching our training sessions while these games have been going on, we've had some good spinners bowling to us in the nets. We'd rather [have] them in the middle, but they've been turning out there, and all the lads have been putting in some really good practice.
"I don't know who it has come from, but clearly there's been a message of some sort. Obviously we've had Amit Mishra missing here (in the final warm-up match). I don't know if he was injured or not, but he didn't bowl that many overs, so clearly there's been a message of some kind."
Lack of practice against spin, an injury to Steven Finn and having to blood a new Test opener in unforgiving conditions all leave the odds stacked pretty highly against England, but India has worries of its own.
Its last Test series was against New Zealand in India back in August, and while the team won the series comfortably, it probably wasn’t the best preparation for the series that is about to unfold. Gautam Gambhir has struggled at the top of the order, and Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara will be properly tested for the first time on home soil, and Zaheer Khan’s fitness will, as always, be a concern for the hosts.
On paper, it looks like it will be a tight contest, with both sides riding the seesaw of form. When it comes to big Test series like this one, winning or losing often comes down to a few key moments in a match or during a session. And with the sides so evenly matched, it will take a special performance from one or two individuals to help their side edge out the opposition.
Ahmedabad last hosted a Test in 2010, and that resulted in a draw. The last time India won there was in 2005, thumping Sri Lanka by 259 runs. A lot has changed since then, and while the most likely result is a draw for the first Test, if India can get into the minds of England’s players and exploit their weakness against spin, they might very well be able to spring a few surprises.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kevin Pietersen is back after a text-message saga, a bizarre press conference and a rather odd YouTube video saw him exiled from the England side during the recent series against South Africa. He scored 100 in one of the warm-up matches, and KP is no stranger to Indian conditions. He’ll have a point to prove, and Pietersen is at his best when he is trying to make a statement.
Virat Kohli’s star has been rising so rapidly many have forgotten that he only made his Test debut about a year ago. In 10 Tests, his average is already above 40, and in five Tests this year, he’s scored a healthy 501 runs at an average of 62.62. He’s feisty and competitive on the field and was the standout performer in India’s losing cause when they toured Australia earlier this year. Kohli has a bright future – and playing against one of the best sides in the world seems to be where he performs at his best. DM
Photo: England's captain Alastair Cook watches during a cricket practice session in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad November 13, 2012. The first test cricket match between India and England will be played in Ahmedabad starting on November 15. REUTERS/Amit Dave