Cook ready for India challenge
In early days of England's 1992-93 tour of India, the pair of Mike Atherton and Phil Tufnell wandered around the streets of Kolkata, admiring and swallowing at once the beauty, chaos and stench of the City of Joy. The pair were bunking as room-mates on their first trip to India and Atherton recounts an interesting story in his autobiography Opening Up.
As they ambled along the streets, the duo ended up sitting "cross-legged" in front of a fortune teller, who had lured the Englishmen in with the offer that for a small fee he would have his caged parrot pick the Tarot cards which would reveal their immediate future. Superstitious, both men acquiesced. The pair's fate, the fortune teller warned, was "bleak" for the next couple of months, but would pick up from February 24 - the day before the England tour ended. Needless to say, England lost the series 3-0.
Security concerns will not allow England's newly installed Test captain, Alastair Cook, to find himself squatting in the promenade by the Gateway of India, a happy hunting ground for fortune tellers. Then again, Cook does not need a stranger to tell him what lays in store when he lands in India.
The reintegration process of Kevin Pietersen back into the England dressing room; how to conquer spin, England's Achilles heel for the many debacles over many decades; installing a suitable and long-term opener to replace Cook's predecessor, Andrew Strauss, with whom he had a prolific partnership; and, importantly, rediscovering the team's winning ways are the main hurdles for Cook and England's team director, Andy Flower, on the India trip.
The rights and wrongs of the Pietersen issue have all the makings of a bestseller but if England want to stand up on Indian soil confidently, they need their best player of spin and they need to embrace him despite his faults. Some have argued that England won the 2009 Ashes largely without Pietersen but then playing India in India on turning tracks is a different proposition to Australia at home. Among current England batsmen, Pietersen has the best scoring rate against Indian spinners in India of 3.57. Of the touring squad, only Cook and Pietersen have made centuries in India, with the pair both passing 1000 runs on the subcontinent since Cook's 2006 debut.
On Thursday, before England departed to India via the UAE - where the squad train over the weekend - Cook said several times that Pietersen was "desperate and keen to pull his England shirt on", because with the three lions on his chest Pietersen has shown the ability to bring down the opposition single-handedly. Pietersen, who is currently in South Africa with Delhi Daredevils, will join up with England after his involvement in the Champions League T20.
Cook acknowledged the bitterness of the past two months, when Pietersen was dropped immediately after his heroics at Headingley in the second Test against South Africa. Earlier this week Strauss himself said that it would not be an easy healing process. Cook recognised the difficulty but indicated strongly that he wanted to move forward.
"It has been a difficult two months for us as an England side but for me as a captain the best possible outcome has happened," Cook said. "We have got a world-class player back in our team. It has been a tough couple of months for Kevin but he seems very contrite. He is desperate to be back playing, doing what he does best - scoring runs for England. As a captain that is what all I want. I want him to come back into the side as he was to score match-winning runs like he did in Colombo, like he did at Headingley. I am sure he will be desperately keen to do that. As a captain I wanted our best players in the team because that is how we know we can get the best results."
Asked if it would be easy for the team management and his team-mates to give Pietersen respect and expect the same in return, Cook agreed that it would take time for the reconciliation but said the first positive steps had been taken. According to Cook the key was to develop the same team ethos that had seen England climb to top of the Test rankings last year with consistent performances.
"Clearly we know how important team spirit and team harmony is because that is where all our strength has been in the last couple of years and it shows in the results," Cook said. "We know how hard we have to work at that to make sure we continue on that front. We will be working as hard as we can in the coming months to put the team in that spirit that we know makes us perform well."
Keeping his house in order is bound to keep Cook occupied, but he is more keen to focus on England's biggest challenge: countering the menace of spin. Last year, England were blanked 5-0 in the ODI series in India. The 3-0 whitewash by Pakistan in the UAE is not even twelve months old and the subsequent struggle in Sri Lanka only re-emphasised their continuing agony against the slow bowlers.
"We know how important playing spin is," Cook said. "We did struggle in UAE, but the amount of work we did towards the latter part of the tour and then in Sri Lanka, we need to get as close to that point as soon as we can and build from there. Because we know how important playing spin is and how important first-innings runs are."
Cook was also not that concerned that the absence of any specialist spinner in the first warm-up game against India A was a smart trick by the Indians to protect their trump card. "What happened in UAE against Pakistan highlighted exactly where were at: we did struggle there. But I thought the improvements were made in Colombo and Galle. To draw a Test series out there was a really good achievement. It is important how we train against spin and how we start."
England last won a series in India in 1985. The last time they won a Test match was when then-captain, Andrew Flintoff, played the role of DJ-cum-captain in Mumbai. Cook did not play that match. He will be desperate to play a leading role this time around; importantly he will need all hands on the deck.
"We have a real, tough challenge ahead of us as a side," Cook said. "It has been almost 30 years since we won in India so that shows the challenge ahead but I am very confident in this squad that we can go out there and do something special."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo