July 4, 2014

An old-fashioned series

India's five-Test tour of England feels like a throwback to the 1950s, down to the weak touring squad

The class of 2011: defensive captain, toothless bowling attack, and a legendary batting line-up that failed to fire. What will be different this time round? © AFP

When India last toured England, they played four Tests. They lost all four. They started the series threatening to be competitive and then fell apart. They spent days in the field hunting leather, finding it increasingly difficult to take 20 wickets. Indeed, so bad had things become that when they did dismiss an English batsman, they changed their minds and called him back to have another go.

They let English crowds of this new millennium experience the halcyon days of the 1930s when Bradman and Trumper and Hutton laid waste to bowling attacks with merciless application. When their turn came to bat, India found their old guard - except for one grizzled veteran - had retreated, sowing panic in the ranks.

India generously gave Stuart Broad the first of his hat-tricks and turned Tim Bresnan into a 1980s West Indian incarnate. The Indian defeats even moved journalists to descend to juvenile headlines that drew on language drawn from teenager text-messaging archives, all the better to capture their on-field catastrophes.

It was the worst of times. It most certainly was not the best of times. Unless, of course, you happened to be English.

India are now back in England. Three years have passed, and much has changed. Some things haven't. Like the Indian team of 2011, this one is supposed to make the series a close-run thing. Indeed, some have even suggested - as others did in 2011 - that India could win. English pitches have supposedly become more batsman-friendly; England have received a battering of their own, Down Under and Right Here; their captain is preoccupied with trading verbal barbs with retired Test cricketers (never a winning strategy, especially if the retiree in question is a notorious Australian wind-up artist); retirements - forced and unforced - have seemingly denuded their ranks; and perhaps most crucially, in a stage-setting series played before the Indian one, England failed to close the deal on a win and a draw, coming away instead with a draw and a loss. England are, in this view, ripe for the kill, waiting for the fork to be put in so that we may all chime in unison, "It's done!"

Perhaps not. India have generously brought along their own problems. Their bowling attack, historically reticent about taking 20 wickets in the five days of a Test, does not seem to have acquired the appropriate number of fangs. Their captain remains, in Test cricket, bafflingly defensive, content to do his best impression of a shipwreck survivor, drifting to any safe destination the currents might carry him. The replacement of the Old Guard by the Young Turks, while promising much in South Africa and New Zealand, has yet to be solidified as the Real Deal, the McCoy, the genuine item. The openers contribute a brittle head to an unsteady body. And lastly, a steady diet of limited-overs cricket in the past few months will have contributed its fair share of rust to batting discretion and bowling stamina.

If India win, we will be told their success was only to be expected against such a fragmented, rudderless, demoralised English team. If they lose, familiar, lopsided, narratives of their overseas incompetence, their inability to play seam, their lack of fighting spirit in moments of adversity, will be trotted out. Counter-narratives are possible, of course. If India win, it will signal the coming to age of the Young Turks, and very possibly of at least two fast bowlers and one spinner. If India lose, England will have shown their own transition is proceeding smoothly - despite the absence of South Africans, and despite the presence of bearded subversives in the ranks that Michael Henderson has been doing his best to warn us about. (On a related note, India will hope that they can provoke many who come to see them play to fail the Tebbit Test.)

A five-Test tour of England by India - a nod in the direction of Indian cricket's coffers - is delightfully old-fashioned. It promises to transport us all the way back to the 1950s. We might almost expect to see sponsor-logo-free full-sleeve shirts and Brylcreemed hair, visibly sported by helmet-free batsmen. India and their fans will hope that the 1950s will only be present in this fashion - by way of allusion and not by way of final scorelines.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here