Vulnerable India seek vengeance
Just before India left Mumbai for Ahmedabad, they were invited to the premiere of the Bollywood film Son Of Sardar. The film is non-original, is supposed to be slapstick, caricatures Sikhs, but we are not getting at Harbhajan Singh and Monty Panesar here. It's the promo we are interested in. Ahead of their series against England, the Indian team couldn't have chosen a film with a more relevant promo. Son Of Sardar promises, "This Diwali, vengeance will be funny." The build-up to the series has been funny, what with rights issues and quality of opposition given for warm-up games dominating news and, at least in popular discourse, becoming part of the Great Indian Plan At Revenge.
About as slapstick and predictable have been the India players' whinges about the pitches they were given in England and Australia. It began in Australia when Gautam Gambhir asked for "rank turners" for visiting teams. Ever since, many have followed suit, and somewhere along the way the pitches provided in Australia and England retrospectively became "green tops", which is the farthest thing from the truth. MS Dhoni took it to another level when he said a home track was not good enough soon after his spinners had taken 18 wickets on it to roll the opposition over for 159 and 164.
At some point before the finishing touches were applied on 8-0, it is possible that India started looking for faults outside. It is natural too: they must have felt cornered, wronged. It must have seemed the whole world was against them. They are now out for vengeance. Whether or not the groundsmen play ball, India have put extreme pressure on themselves by publicly and repeatedly talking about pitches.
India have painted themselves into a lose-lose position where anything less than a reverse 8-0 will be considered a loss for them. And India generally don't do whitewashes. Only twice have they ever whitewashed series longer than two Tests. That's the other side of India's dominance at home, the unfortunate one. And also reason for their gripes against the groundsmen.
Since their defeat to Australia in 2004, India have not lost a Test series at home, a record no other team can boast over the last eight years. Since Mumbai 2006, no visiting team other than South Africa has won a Test in India. Yet, India haven't managed absolute domination because in almost every series some groundsman or the other tries to fight his insomnia through the pitch he rolls out.
However, even if the groundsmen agree to give pitches where offspinners hit batsmen in the ribs, this might not be the best time for India to ask for square turners. Firstly R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha are no Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. And their batting is at its most vulnerable since this home streak began.
The slump in form among certain players is staggering. Gambhir's last century came in January 2010, Virender Sehwag's in November 2010 and Sachin Tendulkar's in January 2011. Zaheer Khan last took five wickets in an innings in October 2010. Yuvraj Singh is coming back from illness, and his endurance hasn't yet been put to a gruelling test. In recent memory, India have never been so collectively out of form, at least when it comes to numbers. With this batting line-up in this form, can they really be sure they will score more against Graeme Swann and Panesar on square turners than what Ashwin and Ojha concede?
Possibly India's trust in England's weakness against spin gives them the confidence to choose assault over attrition, otherwise their preferred mode of combat. They obviously feel their biggest opportunity in this series lies in making England panic. However, writing England off based on their performance against Pakistan in UAE could backfire. The show by a bunch of rookies in a T20 environment can't be an indicator either.
India might be putting all their eggs in one basket, but it can only be for the larger good. A combination of hurt from earlier losses and challenging pitches could bring Dhoni out of his captaincy shell. Also, tracks with turn and bounce any day make for better cricket than those that stay low, making captains and bowlers wait for the batsmen to make mistakes.
And cricketing gods know this contest can do with some excitement. The last time these two teams met, both were on collective highs. India were No. 1 in Tests and had just won the World Cup. England had the Ashes. And they produced a series so forgettable for neutrals that DRS was more interesting, and Nasser Hussain v Ravi Shastri less one-sided. A year and a half later, both have had their lows. If India haven't been this vulnerable before the start of a home series in recent times, England's baggage contains personally signed copies of A Brief History Of Problems Against Spin.
As for the vengeance, India will need their non-performing assets to metamorphose, preferably simultaneously, otherwise they could be looking back at Son Of Sardar again. The film is being marketed as its abbreviated form, SOS.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo