England's cupful of woes
Sixteen months ago, the cosy little pavilion enclosure at Nagpur was the scene of considerable jubilation as Australia ended an Indian jinx that had lasted 35 years. A week ago, England would have looked to the venue of the first Test and anticipated ending an Indian drought that has seen no wins since David Gower's team of 1984-85 famously scripted two to steal a series that started in the shadow of Indira Gandhi's assassination.
But a couple of wounded knees, a personal crisis and a dodgy back or two have left the team in such disarray that the Indian think-tank must wonder which XI will take the park come Wednesday morning. To lose Michael Vaughan, whose astute and unflustered captaincy played such a role in the regaining of the Ashes, was unfortunate, but to be deprived of Marcus Trescothick - England's most accomplished batsman in such conditions - as well bordered on the catastrophic.
By the time Simon Jones twisted his knee in the nets, the cup of woe was already brimful. Minor cartilage damage was the subsequent diagnosis, and Jones, whose swing and reverse-swing prowess might have been so invaluable here, will now join Vaughan on the living-room couch as their team-mates sweat it out in the intense dry heat of central India.
With Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood nursing back injuries, and Liam Plunkett, Jones's likely replacement, struggling with a heel problem, England's preparation for such a marquee series couldn't have been worse. Alastair Cook and James Anderson have flown in from the Caribbean, and Owais Shah, who picked up some batting tips from Mohammad Azharuddin last year, has also been called up, making it extremely likely that at least three debutants will see action in the first Test.
What it does is heap the pressure on Andrew Flintoff. Expected to chip in with the bat and bowl match-altering spells with the ball, Flintoff now finds himself taking on captaincy duties as well. For all Duncan Fletcher's considerable inputs, it will be an onerous task, even for such a magnificent and lion-hearted cricketer.
His task and England's won't be helped by this Indian team's burning desire to right the wrongs of Pakistan. Defeat at Karachi cut deep, especially within a batting line-up that failed to deliver when it mattered most. The subsequent hammering meted out to Pakistan in the one-dayers may have improved the public mood, but the team management are well aware that a further slip from the higher rungs of the Test table will be hard to explain away.
The likes of Ian Bell, Andrew Strauss, Pietersen and Cook have never played a Test in India before, and Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh will be lying in wait, anxious to atone for the mauling they got from Pakistan's batsmen. India are also likely to go for the passion of youth, in the shape of Suresh Raina and S Sreesanth, in an effort to reinvigorate a Test side that has seldom hit the high notes since the series triumph in Pakistan two years ago.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the series would be decided by the tussle between an undercooked English batting line-up and India's spin options, but just as crucial will be the manner in which India's much-celebrated batsmen cope with England's pace attack. Though they got little by way of assistance from the pitches or conditions in Pakistan, Flintoff, Stephen Harmison and Matthew Hoggard never shirked a challenge and they would have watched the footage of India's shambolic Karachi display very closely in the run-up to this series. However, the lateral movement that was the Indians' undoing at the National Stadium will be absent here, with the pitches likely to be as bald as the outfields will be lush.
Though they're missing Yuvraj Singh, in such resplendent form in Pakistan, India have the batting to dominate the series. Virender Sehwag and Mahendra Singh Dhoni represent the fearless impudence of the new small-town India, while Sachin Tendulkar, who averages 76.5 against England, and VVS Laxman are the old stagers with a point to prove. And then there's Rahul Dravid, more at ease as leader with each passing day and perhaps the only man who can rival Ricky Ponting for the tag of the world's most accomplished batsman.
The endless catalogue of misfortune that has been the tour so far for England could, however, turn out to be their biggest ally. With all hands on deck, they would have been expected to push this Indian side all the way. But with key personnel missing, most observers will regard even a drawn series as a triumph. With expectations drastically reduced, they may yet summon up performances bearing the imprint of a team that had done little wrong until the dismal tour of Pakistan. Unlike certain weak-kneed predecessors, the side that Fletcher has helped build has been characterised by its toughness, best exemplified by the two nail-biting victories over Australia last summer.
With Flintoff in charge, they certainly won't lack for effort. But on Indian pitches, against batsmen and bowlers that usually revel in such conditions, effort alone may not be enough.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo