'We know what our challenges in England are' - Dhoni
India coach Duncan Fletcher expects an interesting series for India in England, terming the home team as a side that is "rebuilding". While captain MS Dhoni preferred to focus on India's strengths, Fletcher assessed the England side in comparison to the one that whitewashed India in a four-Test series in 2011.
"I think they [England] have lost some crucial players," Fletcher told reporters during the team's pre-departure media conference in Mumbai. "[The loss of Kevin] Pietersen has been a huge blow to them. And looking at them, they are in a rebuilding phase as well, so that's going to make the series quite interesting.
"I do believe though that they have got some quality batters who have got a lot of experience at Test level. [Alastair] Cook and [Ian] Bell have scored some big runs up the order. The focus will be to get them out as cheaply as we can. The bowling side is fairly well-balanced.
"They have got [James] Anderson and [Stuart] Broad who have been bowling well and picking up wickets. We will focus on going there and producing as good cricket as we can. We have done that in India and we will look forward to adapt to the conditions as quickly as possible and will look to put them under pressure."
Fletcher termed the 2011 series whitewashes in England and Australia "not easy to take", but added that the recent performance during the two Test series in South Africa and New Zealand has given the team much-needed confidence. The key, according to the coach, will be to take the lead in the series.
"Obviously it was disappointing. The 4-0 losses to England and Australia were not easy to take. It is difficult to tour England with a young side, but sometimes it results in an advantage," Fletcher said. "You go out there and play some good cricket - as we did in South Africa and New Zealand - and you learn from there and I hope we can do that. I think it's important to win a match early on in the series. It will give us the confidence that we can win the series. And you never know what the end result will be after that."
After the forgettable outing three years ago, the India line-up has seen drastic changes. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman have all retired, while Viredner Sehwag has lost his place in the side. Dhoni said the series will provide yet another opportunity to the youngsters who fared well in South Africa and New Zealand to showcase their talent.
"Quite a few of the players will be playing their first series in England. But most of the players in the squad have got exposure in South Africa and New Zealand, so they have got a few games behind them and they know what the challenges will be," Dhoni said, adding that the team's early departure - two weeks prior to the start of the first Test on July 9 - will benefit them.
"The good thing will be we are going a bit early, so we can take our time to get into the groove, play a few practice games and prepare ourselves," he said. "Besides, it's a five-match series and I don't think any of us have played a five-Test series. Overall, it should be good, the reason being we have enough time to prepare ourselves."
Dhoni said comparisons should not be drawn between the famed batting line-up of the last two decades, and the young lot of 2014.
"It will be very difficult to fill the shoes of Sehwag as an opener and Rahul at No.3, Sachin coming in and then Laxman and Sourav. I think we shouldn't compare, but think more about the current generation," Dhoni said. "They have come in and are going to serve Indian cricket. It will be a big challenge for them. The good thing is they have had good exposure, playing a few games abroad and having played a lot at home. They have the talent. It's just that they have to get used to the conditions, apply themselves and give respect to the opposition and read the conditions."
Besides the lack of experience in the batting unit, India will also be without veteran new-ball bowler Zaheer Khan, who has been sidelined with an injury, and Dhoni hoped that India would not suffer in his absence.
"Zak is someone who reads the game really well and I always felt that left-arm fast bowlers really have the advantage. They can bring the ball back in and add variation of the ball going away from the batsmen. I felt from the first game he played in South Africa till the last game, there was a considerable amount of improvement.
"Zak is someone who loves to play games. The more games he plays, the better he gets. As far as missing Zaheer is concerned, I can't really say much because with the kind of experience he has, the fast bowling unit doesn't really have that kind of experience. Hopefully we won't miss him, but as I said, I can't really say anything."
Dwelling on the disastrous 2011 series, Dhoni said the team had learned its lessons from the twin tours of England and Australia. "You can call it 7-0 [8-0] because after that we went to Australia and that was also a tough series for us. As I said, it's a constant process. I think those were very difficult periods for us.
"We were not winning games. We were behind in the games and were not able to compete. So the focus will be initially to get into the groove and to create competition. Once we are in a position when the game is kind of 50-50, that's the time when we want to capitalise, so that's what it's all about and we are looking forward to it.
"You go through tough times. What I personally believe in is you should forget the stats. But also, it pushes you to see the areas where you have to work on to be a consistent team. These were the lessons that came out of those tough twin tours. It helped us when we came back to India and when we went to South Africa."
Taking into account that this will be India's first five-Test series in England for more than five decades, the national selectors have opted for an 18-member squad. Dhoni termed it as a "good decision" since it will not only help reserves get acclimatised to the conditions, but also benefit the team immensely during practice sessions.
"What an 18-member squad does is that in case of an injury, the players who would be replacing the injured players are already used to the conditions, especially if you see the duration of the tour," he said. "In a way, it will help us if needed and at the same time, we can get some really good practice and it will give us good bench strength. They will know the conditions and what lengths to bowl. And also the batsmen, they can get used to playing the fast bowlers a little more.
"Once the series starts, the main bowlers who have bowled a lot during matches tend to take time out [in the nets] and the other lot of bowlers will bowl at batsmen. I think it's very important to have good practice sessions because it reflects in the games.
"It's a good decision but at the same time, it's something that is really needed because last time we lost quite a few players [to injury] and [replacement] players had to be flown in. We had to play them without them getting used to the conditions. It will be a good environment for the reserves to get used to the conditions, and help us when it comes to going ahead with them."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo