A fitting finale awaits
Amid all the furore that surrounded the teams' behaviour in the second Test at Trent Bridge, it was almost possible to overlook the quality of the contest. Here at last (give or take the odd incident of crass indiscipline) was Test cricket the way it was meant to be played. Two hard and well-matched sides, asking no quarter and giving none in return. England may have sleepwalked to victory against the supine West Indians (and sleepwalked to defeat throughout the Ashes and the World Cup), but at Trent Bridge - as at Lord's beforehand - their eyes were wide open from first ball to last.
Their mouths were wide open too, which rather detracted from the main event, but with Michael Vaughan at the helm, England are not about to mend their ways entirely. On Wednesday morning, both captains were called to see the match referee, Ranjan Madugalle, and reminded of their responsibilities, but the meeting did not amount to a gagging order.
"I've looked back at the last game and I do think there were a couple of areas where we got close to stepping over the line," said Vaughan."But I still want to see bowlers doing a little bit of gamesmanship, and chirping. It's swearing, and an attack on a player, that I think is wrong."
In the heat of battle, it's inevitable that a fair amount of fruity language will filter through the stump microphones, but no-one who values the intensity of the contests we've just witnessed would want it any other way. In his previous incarnation as captain, Vaughan forged himself a reputation as one of the least compromising leaders in the game. If his instincts seemed a little dulled after his 18-month absence, then the majesty of his second-innings hundred at Trent Bridge finally convinced the doubters that this time he's back for good. On the five previous occasions when Vaughan has lost a Test match (and been around to orchestrate a reply), England have emerged victorious in the follow-up match. This week he fully intends to make it six out of six.
"You learn a lot about your team in a week like this," said Vaughan. "We haven't lost a home series since 2001 and that's the challenge for the week - how are we going to react to being 1-0 down in the series? It's going to be a tough challenge, but these games are great because this is when you see which players will stand up to the pressure." The challenge was being thrown down to Vaughan's own team-mates but also, inevitably, to his opponents. India's habit of squandering leads in overseas Test series has not been lost on England's think-tank. The pressure to perform will cut both ways this week.
"Our challenge is to play the kind of cricket that we played at Trent Bridge," said Rahul Dravid who, in the last six years, has watched series wins slip away in Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Australia, Pakistan and - most recently - South Africa. "When you go out there and put your things right and do the basics right, and then get beaten, sometimes you have to accept it," said Dravid. "The need for our team is to back up the good performance with another good performance. It takes a lot to win Test matches and it takes a lot more to win Test series. We have to maintain our performance throughout the course of the series and that is quite difficult."
There could hardly be a better venue than The Oval for such a crunch encounter, for the recently redeveloped ground is England's most reliable venue for a result. Since India's high-scoring stalemate on the 1990 tour, there have been just three draws in 16 matches - and two of those (including India's last visit in 2002) were rain-affected. "If the weather's good and we play good cricket, the result will take its natural course," said Vaughan. "If we can put [India] under pressure with runs on the board, we've got enough in our attack to force a result."
|For Vaughan and Dravid there are also some happy memories to fall back on. Both men were in sublime touch in the corresponding fixture five years ago, when Dravid made 217 to Vaughan's 195.|
England are expected to name an unchanged side, with Stuart Broad once again set to miss the cut. Kevin Pietersen's mystery virus caused a mild panic when he missed training on Tuesday, but he has been passed fit to resume his acquaintance with the ground on which he scored his fabulous 158 against Australia two years ago. And for Vaughan and Dravid there are also some happy memories to fall back on. Both men were in sublime touch in the corresponding fixture five years ago, when Dravid made 217 to Vaughan's 195.
"We have some good memories on this ground and I'll certainly be taking my mind back to those memories to get some sort of inspiration," said Dravid. "Five years have passed and this is a new game, but my experience of the Oval wicket is that there tends to be something in it for everyone. If a batsman gets set, it opens up a lot of back-foot shots and the front-foot game as well, but as a bowler you always have a chance because you get a bit of bounce. Generally, it's very good cricket played at The Oval and I don't think it will be different this time."
India have already selected their side but will wait until the morning of the match to unveil it. No surprises are anticipated, especially after the cohesion they showed at Trent Bridge, although plenty attention is sure to fall on the errant Sreesanth, whose transgressions - including a beamer to Pietersen and a big no-ball against Paul Collingwood - earned him a stern talking-to during India's warm-up match at Leicester last week.
This will be his last act on the England tour. He has been dropped for the forthcoming one-day series, although he is set to return to action in South Africa for the Twenty20 World Championship next month. "Sreesanth is well-prepared for this responsibility," said Dravid. "I had a word with him, and he is very focused and keen to do well and move on from what happened.
"He will be disappointed [that he's not been picked], but that is part and parcel of being an international sportsman," said Dravid. "The worst kind of players are those who are happy about being dropped. I have no problems with the players being disappointed and then wanting to go out and correct it. If it helps them to comeback stronger those are the sort of guys we want."
Sreesanth is the type of bowler who can produce a match-changing spell when it's least expected, and right now in English eyes, the expectations of his performance could hardly be lower. All the focus has been on the swinging left-armers, Zaheer Khan and RP Singh, who between them have ensured that England's batting has been unable to dominate in its usual manner. "When the ball is swinging, left-armers are always a big threat," said Vaughan. "Swing is something that we haven't seen in international cricket for a long time, and that's why it's been fascinating to play in the two games."
It's been a hot-tempered series, but a high-quality one as well. Over the next five days, it ought to reach a fitting crescendo.
England 1 Andrew Strauss, 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Michael Vaughan (capt), 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Ian Bell, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Chris Tremlett, 9 Ryan Sidebottom, 10 Monty Panesar, 11 James Anderson.
India (probable) 1 Wasim Jaffer, 2 Dinesh Karthik, 3 Rahul Dravid (capt), 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Sourav Ganguly, 6 VVS Laxman, 7 MS Dhoni (wk), 8 Anil Kumble, 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 RP Singh, 11 Sreesanth.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo