India have lost just one home Test series in the last 12 years. England have won only one Test in India in their last four tours of the country.
Added to this, the tourists’ fastest bowler is unfit, their captain is new, they have no wrist spinner in the squad and intend to use Samit Patel as a serious bowling option – a tactic which Rahul Dravid believes is condemned to failure.
The signals are not good for England, who have at least done themselves the favour of playing three proper warm-up games. It’s almost unheard of these days in international cricket, and demonstrates just how important this tour is for Andy Flower’s team.
Lose the series, and the heady days of August 2011, when they thrashed India 4-0 on home soil to stand top of the world, will seem particularly distant. Draw it, and they can emerge with a smattering of credit. Win it, and suddenly everything is rosy again. But can they realistically formulate and execute a game plan that will leave this solid Indian side defeated?
Two things have to happen for England: they need to take 20 wickets and they need to avoid the sort of calamitous batting collapses that emerged with embarrassing regularity against Pakistan’s spinners in the UAE at the start of the year.
Let’s come back to England’s bowling potential later, and look firstly at their forlorn batting in Dubai and Abu Dhabi: 192, 160, 327, 72, 141 and 252. Only one batsman, Matt Prior, emerged with an average in excess of 30. Other batsmen repaired their reputation somewhat in the short two-Test tour to Sri Lanka that followed, with Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott both hitting centuries, and Alastair Cook also enjoying a good tour.
Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell continued to struggle though, and while Strauss has now retired, Bell is inked in to start in Ahmedabad. Harsher selectors may well have decided Bell – brilliant though he is in other conditions – was not someone who could be relied on in the sub-continent, and his frailties were exposed in the first two warm-up matches of the current tour.
With Nick Compton set for a debut, and Samit Patel also short of Test experience at number six, Cook, Pietersen and Trott look to be the key batsmen for England. Cook famously scored a century on Test debut in India, while Trott’s patience and general diligence are the perfect qualities to help him make the most of these Indian wickets, particularly if the ball’s not spinning sharply.
But it’s Pietersen, the black sheep of the England cricket family, who is the number one asset.
Accepted back into the fold after an embarrassing breakdown in relations between himself, the board and various players, Pietersen is a real danger because only he can score at the sort of rate that would allow him to take the game quickly away from the opposition.
But if England’s gun batsman has a bad series, things could get very difficult for the tourists, especially if they start yo-yoing between stonewall defence and risky aggression against the spinners. England have made noises saying they’re not worried about India’s spinners since they have no “mystery” bowler in the guise of Muttiah Muralitharan or Saeed Ajmal.
But they seem to have quickly forgotten how Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath ran through their batting in Sri Lanka in one of the two Tests out there. Herath is not a mystery spinner, and nor is Ravichandran Ashwin, who will play at Ahmedabad. But Ashwin is talented and intelligent, potentially as important to India’s armoury as Anil Kumble was in the past, and England must play him well.
Without Finn, England will probably pick James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan as the fast bowlers, with Graeme Swann the sole specialist spinner. Anderson has matured into a bowler who can be a real threat even when conditions are not obviously helpful, and has dismissed Sachin Tendulkar seven times, more than any other bowler with the exception of Muralitharan.
Broad, who is completing his recovery from a slight heel problem, could get hot, bothered and a bit flustered if things don’t go his way, and the best thing the Indian batsmen can do is to get under his skin a little bit and prey on that weakness in his character. The surprise package could be Bresnan. He is a useful exponent of reverse swing and has a positive, persevering attitude that should stand him in good stead.
But the decisive contribution will surely come from Swann, who should reach the important landmark of 200 Test wickets in this series. He seems to lack a little of the fizz and enthusiasm he had when he first broke into the side but he still puts a lot of effort into spinning the ball hard and the drift he gets in the air can force a batsman down the wrong line. It will benefit India to remember that after a quiet three Tests he took nine against them in a big win at The Oval on the first dry wicket he encountered. In the sub-continent Swann’s record is good, even though it is limited to just six Tests across India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
On the down side, he was rendered virtually impotent against the South African right-handers 12 months later, who took guard on off-stump and nullified the lbw threat, and he was pretty ordinary against Pakistan in the UAE.
His weakness is a lack of variety, something that could be exposed by batsmen like Virender Sehwag and Virat Kohli, who will look to play big shots to pull Swann out of his rhythm. And with Monty Panesar unlikely to be picked as a support spinner, Swann must think about keeping the runs down if he’s not taking wickets.
This series has the makings of a competitive one which India should win by a small margin. I don’t make them huge favourites though, and if both Pietersen and Swann really fire England could yet cause a surprise. India need to limit the impact of those two as much as possible.