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For the players of both sides this series may not be the ultimate match-up, but there is more than enough potential for it to develop into a contest worth top billing
July 19, 2011
There is a scene in the acclaimed documentary Fire in Babylon in which the great West Indians of the 1970s and 80s reflect on the "Calypso" generation that preceded their rise to world domination. Turning up, giving everyone a good show, then losing in a charming fashion - just as they did on the tied-Test tour of Australia in 1960-61 - was a trait that may have proved endearing, but it was one that Clive Lloyd's mean machine soon made it their mission to banish.
A similar change of mindset has taken hold of India's cricketers in the space of a generation. Twenty-one years ago, almost to the week, these two teams took part in one of the most acclaimed mismatches of all time -the Lord's Test of 1990, when Kiran More's fumble set Graham Gooch on his way to a career-best 333, and England to victory by 247 runs. Along the way, however, India's own calypso qualities captured the English public's imagination - from the impossibly wristy riposte of their captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, through Kapil Dev's four consecutive sixes to save the follow-on, and through an outstanding one-handed running catch from a 17-year-old prodigy, Sachin Tendulkar - who, within a fortnight, would record the first of his 99 not out international centuries.
As Wisden Cricket Monthly's editor, David Frith, wrote at the time, that match played out like a midsummer dream, and two decades on, Tendulkar's enduring presence in India's ranks confirms the other-worldliness of that era. At some stage in the coming days, Tendulkar will march out to the crease for his fifth Test appearance at the game's grandest venue, knowing that he has an opportunity to record arguably the most incredible achievement in one of the greatest sporting careers of them all. Perhaps more importantly, however, he'll be seeking to cement his team's credentials as the most formidable outfit in the modern-day game.
However and wherever it arrives - and he will surely not fall Bradman-esquely short - the romance of Tendulkar's hundredth hundred will be a distant echo of those early days in international cricket. The team of which he remains such a formidable component has changed beyond recognition in the intervening years, in attitude as much as output. These days, India sit atop both Test and one-day trees, and go about their business with a swagger that, like West Indies and Australia before them, reflects their sense of entitlement. They are the game's modern-day galacticos, and they play with expectation where hope once held sway.
Where England are concerned, that attitude is particularly justified. Despite a supposed fallibility outside of Asia, India have not lost at home or away in five series since Rahul Dravid first appeared on the scene in 1996, and despite England's belief that greentops are the key to ending that sequence, their traumatic defeats at Headingley in 2002 and Trent Bridge five years later are potent reminders of the class that resides in their opponents' batting ranks. India have lost just two series out of 15 since their mould-breaking triumph in 2007, and none in the last three years. The financial might of the BCCI is nowadays matched, in no uncertain terms, by an intimidatory on-field clout.
Mind you, England are themselves in a mean streak of Test form, with seven series wins and a draw in eight outings since May 2009, which means that the coming contest ought to be the finest tussle on these shores since the epic Ashes summer of 2005. Then as now, two genuine contenders for the World Test Championship crown are about to go head to head, and if the hype surrounding this series is more muted than one might expect in the circumstances, then that is most likely a reflection of the two teams' obsessions with their principal foes, Australia and Pakistan - against whom they each recorded a memorable triumph in the winter just gone.
Nevertheless, a contest of this calibre needs no over-egging, and it is strangely refreshing that the cricket has, for once, been left to do much of the talking. If England can win the series by two clear Tests out of four, they will have achieved their stated ambition of becoming the world's No.1 Test side, a position they've not held since Peter May held sway in the early 1950s. That scoreline might be too much to expect, even for a team that condemned Australia to three innings defeats on home soil in the recent Ashes, but there's little doubt that England are primed for the challenge that awaits them - more so, arguably, than their opponents who were a clear second-best in their solitary warm-up against Somerset earlier in the week.
It was not an auspicious arrival, as Somerset racked up a grand total of 685 for 5 in two innings, either side of rolling their opponents for 224. However, there's one particular member of the Indian party who will shrug his shoulders at such events. Throughout his seven-year tenure as England coach, Duncan Fletcher treated warm-up matches with disdain, often using 13 or 14 players in what amounted to glorified nets sessions. It is an attitude that could not be further removed from the approach of his fellow Zimbabwean, Andy Flower who, back in November, treated England's three first-class fixtures in the lead-up to the Ashes as unofficial Tests, and reaped the rewards of his team's intensity.
Fletcher's crossing of the floor promises to be the zestiest subplot of a spicy summer. The manner of his departure in 2007 was bitter in the extreme, and continues to mask the extent to which his efforts laid the foundations of the world-class side that England are now becoming. To judge from recent history, his calm and considered manner will fit well with an Indian dressing room that prefers its coaches in the John Wright/Gary Kirsten backroom mould, even if Dravid admitted they are still getting to grips with his well-disguised sense of humour.
Nevertheless, his credentials as a pure batting coach are not in doubt, with Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen among his keenest disciples in the England team. With that in mind, the insider knowledge he can impart to India's attack could have more bearing on the series than any nuggets of wisdom he can pass on to the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid and VVS Laxman. A trio with 99 Test centuries between them are a bit long in the tooth to learn the merits of the forward press.
It will not have escaped Fletcher's attention that India is the one Test nation that he never managed to beat during his days with England, so it would doubtless grate if Flower were to put that record straight at the first attempt. But despite their common heritage and studious demeanours, the nature of their rivalry is very much a theoretical one. As Flower showed by ducking the victory podium in Sydney back in January, he too prefers his players to hog the limelight.
The key head-to-heads will be on-field ones. Andrew Strauss's twin innings of 78 and 109 not out at Taunton took some of the edge off his duel with Zaheer Khan, even if another cheap left-arm dismissal at Lord's will reawaken the clamour in double-quick time. James Anderson's lateral movement will be starkly complemented by the steepling bounce of Chris Tremlett - two bowlers who have matured beyond recognition since their fitfully impressive performances in 2007, and whose efforts against India's senior batsmen could define the shape of the series.
And then there's England's own run-machines - Alastair Cook, a centurion on debut against India in 2006, and the possessor of six hundreds in his last ten Tests, and Jonathan Trott, whose average after 21 appearances (62.23) exceeds even that of Tendulkar. With Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell in exquisite form in the third Test against Sri Lanka, there's no reason for England to question their right to challenge the world's best - especially given the size of the hole left by Virender Sehwag at the top of India's order. More than any other batsman, his ability and willingness to batter good bowling sets him apart from his peers, and therefore his absence for one, maybe two, Tests is hugely significant.
The restrictions on DRS could also be a major factor, not so much for the decisions that go one way or the other, but for the friction that could be created between two sides that will not need much invitation to get feisty with one another. As England discovered to their cost at Trent Bridge four years ago, when a misplaced jelly bean sparked a diplomatic incident, India's players know how to fight - not only their corner, but their opponent's as well. That Calypso tendency is a thing of the dim and distant past. When battle commences on Thursday, neither side will have any doubt as to the intensity.
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala