June 24, 2014

The importance of England v India

Why the upcoming series has all the makings of a historic turning point

Don't believe Fletcher when he says India are a work in progress © PTI

It doesn't feel polite to be writing about India while England are still engaging Sri Lanka with a potentially definitive day left at Headingley, but such is the nature of our summers now: hors d'ouvre and then main event. India are on their way, and England will feel their weight, both on and off the pitch.

It is hard to recall a time when so much has changed between two sides in two series. When India were last here, emotionally exhausted from the World Cup win and with the heavy narrative of Tendulkar's 100th international century distorting the significance of the rest of their batting, England won 4-0. Only the mighty Wall was still standing by the end, as India ceded the No. 1 ranking and its glowing golden mace to a side that was reaching what we can judge in retrospect to be a formidable but short-lived peak.

Cut forward four years and both teams have gone through generational shifts. India's side is full of the thrill of the new; England are less sure that they are entering an era capable of matching the old.

Duncan Fletcher is, as ever, lowering expectations by talking of India as a work in progress but he's fooling no one. It is a team full of players who have grown up under the heat of the spotlight: they have been seasoned by IPLs and World T20s and away series in South Africa and New Zealand. There is a vast gulf, for example, between the careers and life experience of Virat Kohli, 25, and Gary Ballance, 24, or Ravi Ashwin, 27, and Moeen Ali, also 27. And if Alastair Cook is feeling the heat of captaining England, imagine - if it's possible - the life that MS Dhoni has been living for a decade. No, it's a nice try, Duncan, but we're not buying that one.

For me, India start as favourites. The weather has been good, the pitches are flat and getting flatter and England's four quick bowlers are facing a seven-Test summer in a team with no established spinner. Over five matches the greater quality will out, and that is India's.

But this is about more than just the cricket. The five-match series will be the first India have played in England since 1959; indeed it the first that MS Dhoni has ever contested. It is also the tipping point, the moment at which India is acknowledged as the game's leader both on and off the pitch. The patchy history, the colonial past… they are consigned now. With yet more symbolism, the team arrives the same week that the Big Three take a chokehold on the ICC and future of international cricket. (Ah, the Big Three - now there's a misnomer: it's the Big One and its lackeys.)

It is this difference in feeling that is the biggest shift since 2010. India's emergence as a thrusting modern powerhouse, its destiny as seductive as it is unknowable, has changed the way that it is perceived by the wider world. The energy and ambition are palpable. In years to come, this series may be looked upon as the turning point, the moment at which the past fell away and a new world began to form. The cricket, especially the batting, will be a feast, but the meaning of the tour will be far greater than the result. The future of the sport itself is invested in India and its team.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here