By Oliver Brett
London: English cricket followers are nostalgic folk. They love to wrap themselves up in the yarns and loose threads that make up the tapestry of the game we all love, and no memories are cherished more sweetly than Ashes memories.
It’s all because of a small terracotta urn presented to England captain Ivo Bligh in 1882-83 that thousands of people arrived at their work desks last winter unable to function, having listened to the cricket in Australia all night.
And it’s all because of the perceived injustices of the Bodyline series in 1932-33 that young Australians grow up playing the game with their parents exhorting them that one day they must beat those dastardly Poms and win those fabled Ashes.
So, along comes a four-match home series against India, the number one team in the world, and, well… the reception is just a little bit muted.
Granted, the clamour for tickets has been pretty strong, but the breed the marketing people term “general sports fans” have not exactly been writhed in nerves wondering whether Zaheer Khan will crash one into Andrew Strauss’s stumps on the first morning at Lord’s.
Even in the 1990s, when England were perennially rubbish, the excitement surrounding the Ashes continued to linger. Thus, one has to respect its position in the agenda of global cricket.
However, there is no better time to explode the myth that the Ashes are the ultimate prize for English cricketers than right here and right now.
It all starts with the most magical coming together of statistics, an eclipse-like moment in which the 2,000th Test is also the 100th between England and India. The delicious enigma is that Lord’s could also witness the 100th international century by Sachin Tendulkar, and his first at the most famous of all cricket grounds.
Let us not imagine, for one instant, that this is all about one man’s deeds, however exceptional that man has been and however mouthwatering – if tinged with sadness – it will be to see him grace English cricket grounds for what must surely be the final time.
The Zaheer v Strauss contest could determine which side emerges dominant from the early exchanges, and which is forced to play catch up. Bereft of form, the England captain has been undone by unheralded Sri Lankan left-arm seamers of late; Zaheer, the hero of the Trent Bridge Test in 2007 following his summer of renaissance at Worcester 12 months earlier, has the tools to exploit any helpful conditions on offer.
England have plenty of in-form players. But can James Anderson scythe through the seasoned Indian batting line-up in the same way he did in Australia six months ago?
Will the prodigious batting form of Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell be checked by Zaheer, Ishant Sharma and Harbhajan Singh?
And what of Virender Sehwag? Easily the most flamboyant of the top world batsmen in Test cricket, it was he who ignited India’s stunning chase of 387 to win the first Test against England in India in Chennai in December 2008.
Slamming 83 from just 68 balls late on the fourth evening, he gave the rest of the team belief, and Tendulkar’s unbeaten century helped complete the job.
Sehwag’s enthusiasm was sorely missing when India drifted aimlessly during their most recent international engagement - a somewhat less taxing chase in the final Test of their Caribbean tour.
His recovery from shoulder surgery is taking longer than expected. It looks like ‘Viru’ will not appear until the third Test in Birmingham at the earliest – and yet that could be just the right time to inject some pizazz into proceedings.
So many fascinating imponderables… so many reasons for our expectation levels to be high.
India have won each of their last two series against England, both by a narrow 1-0 scoreline. Though there have been a few keenly-contested drawn series as well, you have to go back to 1996, when Dominic Cork and Chris Lewis shared the new ball, to find the last time England won a rubber against the Indians.
As a potted recent history, that compares pretty well to the Ashes, in which, after an unhealthy drought between 1989 and 2002-03, England can boast a 3-1 lead in terms of the most recent series.
One could hardly call that cause for complacency, but you’d expect, perhaps, more immediate hunger from the fans for an overdue win over India as opposed to another over the older, more traditional foe, Australia.
Besides, and this should be the most salient issue of all, England are third in the world rankings and moving upwards; Australia are fifth and showing little signs of shrugging off their malaise.
Gone are the legends of the past, and it’s in the bowling ranks that they’ve suffered the most. Magicians Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were once-in-a-lifetime players, made all the more so successful by their ogre-like ability to turn a succession of England batsmen into quivering wrecks before they had hurled down a ball in anger.
Nevertheless, the replacements have been more than disappointing. Without wishing to be rude, guys like Ben Hilfenhaus and Xavier Doherty appear some distance short of genuine Test class.
India’s rise as a Test force has been a gradual one. They were dreadful travellers in the 1980s and 1990s, but since winning in Pakistan in 2004, they have won plenty of series away from home.
They are not yet a dominant force in the five-day game in the way the West Indies were under Clive Lloyd and Australia were under Steve Waugh. But, despite questionable preparations for series such as this very one starting on Thursday, they are authentic world number ones.
For Strauss and his settled side, who have impressively won seven and drawn one of their last eight series, taking on this India side right now is a challenge that comes at the right time. And it is one that deserves the utmost attention from all English sports lovers.
Updated Date: Jul 18, 2011 21:43:46 IST