England and India are, in a sense, two of a kind – teams that have scraped the bottom in the not so distant past but then slowly, consistently worked their way back to the top of the heap.
For some, it’s been a journey that has spanned a lifetime – at least, it seems like one. For others, the moment couldn’t have come any sooner. The two best Test teams on the planet, South Africa might have something to say about that – but the two best teams locked in a battle at Lords. The setting for the 100th Tests between the two seems perfect.
Both come into the series on the back of series victories. India’s approach is still being debated, but the big guns are back and perhaps that changes things. England, on the other hand, have won their last five series and would want to prove that they are contenders for the top spot in the test rankings.
Sachin’s 100th Test ton will enter the argument somewhere and add to the atmosphere. But it will be pace and swing that will decide the victor and the vanquished. England, the last abode of swing bowling, against a generation of batsmen who have grown on batting beauties makes for a pretty tantalising prospect.
India, as they have historically done while touring overseas, have 5 pacers in their ranks and among them is Zaheer Khan, who makes his comeback to spearhead the attack.
That he has to fire is a given because they are up against a confident English side playing in their own backyard. Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott, tough men who play cricket as if they belong to perhaps another era, will be hard nuts to crack, which is why Zak will need support – not just in spirit or intention, but in wickets as well.
Ishant’s form in the West Indies makes him approach this series with a lot of belief to tackle the task ahead. The advantage that an in-form Ishant brings to the team is the amount of extra bounce that he gets from pitches which can trouble most batters in the world. But he will need to adapt as quickly as he can as the wickets in England support seam bowling and the length will be different from the one he found so regularly in the West Indies.
Another one to watch out from the Indian team is Praveen Kumar, who will find the conditions perfectly suited to his style of bowling. He is one bowler who likes to swing the ball and does it with a lot of skill and control. The English summer is often unpredictable, but if he can find his place, he will add another dimension to the attack.
That leaves us with Munaf Patel and Sreeshant, who also comes back from another injury. Munaf, with his control, and Sree, with his unpredictability, are very different bowlers. However, the advantage of having toured England before gives the Kerala paceman the knowledge of what needs to be done on the wickets.
And while we have discussed the five seamers, we cannot forget Harbhajan Singh, who has just got his 400th Test wicket and is an integral part of the bowling line-up. Harbhajan would need to step up in conditions that traditionally don’t favour the spin bowlers.
The natural question asked is how do the English bowlers compare to the Indians? In my opinion, as a unit, they are slightly ahead of their Indian counterparts, apart from Zak.
Their spearhead, undoubtedly is Jimmy Anderson, who at the moment is Number 3 in the world in Test rankings, which goes to show just how successful he has been in the last couple of years in Test cricket. His ability to swing the ball both ways with a lot of control has consistently troubled batters all over the world and to add to that the ability to reverse the ball when it is slightly older gives him an edge. The manner in which he is negotiated will go a long way in deciding the way this series goes.
But the supporting cast gives England the advantage. They also have Chris Tremlett who has improved immensely in the last year or so. At 6.7”, he is a mountain of a man who seems to have discovered the right lengths for such a tall guy to bowl because the extra bounce can be disconcerting to any batsmen in the world. Add to that his great form against the Lankans and you know getting the better of him won’t be an easy ask.
The third bowler they are likely to go with is either Stuart Broad who has been struggling with form or Tim Bresnan, who was impressive in the Ashes in Australia. Both bowlers bring something different to the team – Broad with his extra height hits the deck hard and gets a bit of extra bounce, whereas Bresnan on the other hand is a skiddy bowler who bowls a heavy ball, is good with the old ball, posing a different challenge to what a Broad, Anderson or Tremlett have to offer.
The other seamer in the picture is likely to be Steve Finn who is a very young promising 6.7” bowler in the Chris Tremlett mould, but has a bit more zip in his bowling. Finn seems to have fallen back in the pecking order, but when in form can prove to be a handful.
Last but not the least is Grame Swann, the Number 1 Test bowler in the world. He will most definitely ask questions to the Indian batters, who play spin bowling well, and will have to be wary of him because he is an attacking world class spin bowler.
Eventually, the key to bowl in English conditions is how each bowler quickly adapts to the length he needs to bowl as it varies a lot more than most pitches around the world. To put it plainly, it doesn’t always help to hit the deck hard, but you can get a lot more if you let the ball kiss the surface and pitch the ball up more often than not.
That is where Zaheer and Anderson have become better bowlers than most because they quickly assess the conditions. And that is why again the guy who performs better out of these two might have a chance to put his team ahead.
The author has played 29 Tests and 191 ODIs for India.