India in England 2014 July 26, 2014

India in favourable, but unfamiliar position

It is not often that India go into an away Test with a lead, but following their important win at Lord's, the onus is now on MS Dhoni to ensure that the team is not overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations

Play 03:08
'In a five-match series a 1-0 lead is not big' - Dhoni

The first two Tests of this series have been matches that Indian teams typically play away from home. The good Indian teams, that is.

The first Test has always been the key; they rarely come back from a poor first one. In 2007, in England, they hung in for a draw in the first, and went on to win the series. Incidentally, every time India have not lost the first Test in England, they have won the series.

The second Test was almost a template for Indian overseas wins: bat first, weather the storm, put runs on the board, sneak the first-innings wickets without much damage, score big in the third innings when time is best for batting, and mount the pressure in the final innings.

Now comes foreign territory for this team - a lead in a Test series outside Asia for the first time since 2011, but the ones against West Indies and before that against New Zealand, were not entirely unexpected. This one is. Like it was in 2007 in England, or in 2006-07 in South Africa before that, or the West Indies in 2002. India won only one of those three series.

When MS Dhoni starts knocking on wood in superstition at press conferences, you know the team is packing a suitcase for a place they haven't been. Asked about M Vijay's solid batting at the top of the order, Dhoni went looking for the wood on the table in front of him so he doesn't tempt fate.

Dhoni said he hoped Vijay stays in the present and does not think too much about runs, which he will get anyway if he stays at the wicket for long enough by the virtue of being a good striker of the ball. That is an advice India need too. Stay in the present. Do not think too much about whether they want to sit on the lead or be desperate to add to it. These questions, when not asked regularly enough of you, can mess with your head. Things start happening too fast at such time. In theory, Dhoni is just the man you need to slow them down.

"I feel that in a five-match series a 1-0 lead is not big," Dhoni said. "And what's crucial is to pick the right team and move forward. We are not thinking about any tagline this time, 1-0 up, level the series etc. We need to pick the right team, and for that we need to judge the nature of the wicket. We are more focusing on all these areas at this time."

The right combination this time for India is Rohit Sharma coming in for Stuart Binny. It has been an experiment well worth it - seeing how Dhoni goes at No. 6, showing general intent with an extra bowler, and also seeing how much Binny can do as a second-string bowler in terms of keeping others fresh - but India now feel they have not had enough use for the Karnataka allrounder.

There have not been any public comments to drive a psychological screw into the struggling Alastair Cook's head. At every press conference, Dhoni is asked about Cook; on each occasion he says he does not think too much about the opposition

"I know there is a famous saying 'why fix something when it is not broken'," Dhoni said, "But you have to realise that others are trying to catch up with you when you are doing well. So the important thing is that we will see the wicket and decide what the best combination is."

With Binny bowling only 10 overs over two innings in helpful conditions, the choice was now down to between Rohit and R Ashwin.

Ashwin is arguably a better batsman that Binny, but on a greenish pitch that is reputed to be one of the quickest in England, India have all but moved back to orthodoxy. It is possible Dhoni realised it was a bit risky to have such a thin batting line-up. At any rate, it should be up to England to make more of the running.

India have shown they are happy in their bubble for most of the series. There have not been any public comments to drive a psychological screw into the struggling Alastair Cook's head. At every press conference, Dhoni is asked about Cook; on each occasion he says he does not think too much about the opposition.

Dhoni knows Cook's abilities only too well. He had Cook's side down 1-0 in India, too, with three Tests to go, but ended up losing the series 2-1. There are three more Tests to go here; Dhoni must be secretly knocking on wood thinking of Cook's form too. India know they are not a side that can blow away oppositions in these conditions. Vijay and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who keep chipping away like worker ants, have emerged as India's new prototype players.

Their two most aggressive players - Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli - have not fired yet. They know tactical attrition is their best bet here, which is why they are unlikely to get carried away after one win. Vijay will have to painstakingly leave balls all over again, Bhuvneshwar will have to bowl that channel just outside off to Cook again, and Dhoni will have to know again what is the right moment to strike with aggression.

There is a long way to go to the place this side has not been. U2 sang that such places have to be believed to be seen. India will want to believe only in the next step.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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