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November 13, 2012
They may not have enjoyed the preparation they hoped for against spin bowling and they may be without their only genuine fast bowler, but England go into the first Test of the series against India confident, composed and, most of all, united. It might have seemed barely possible a few weeks ago but, at this stage, Kevin Pietersen appears to have returned to the squad seamlessly.
It is true that the real test of England's team spirit is yet to come. That will come on hot afternoons when things do not go their way; when disappointment or frustration tests patience to the limit.
But, going into the first Test in Ahmedabad on Thursday, England can feel satisfied with the progress they have made. As recently as September, the divisions within the squad appeared so deep that some predicted that Pietersen would never appear in international cricket again. And, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Pietersen affair - and most reasonable observers would accept that there was fault on both sides - the fact is that England are a stronger side for his inclusion.
Indeed, such has been the success of Pietersen's "reintegration" that Matt Prior, the England wicketkeeper, has said that the spirit within the squad has never been better. While Prior and his colleagues know that the next few weeks offer one of the sternest challenges to any cricketer, they at least go into their series feeling confident in their preparation and their unity.
"We go into this Test match feeling fully prepared that we've covered every base," Prior said. "We've had a very good and long preparation phase this time around. We have been able to hit a lot of balls and play a lot of cricket on these types of wickets. We have given ourselves the best chance. We have prepared as well as we can. It's now down to performing on the pitch.
"There are certain things that we do now in our net sessions and in our training and our thought processes that are very different to other England teams I've toured with. If you keep doing what you always did, you keep getting what you've always got. I think the records speak for themselves: how long it's been since England last won out here.
"So to come out here and win in that environment would be even better. All these little challenges lead to something that, if we could pull it off, would be a fantastic honour to be part of."
It may be tempting to dismiss Prior's words as pre-series spin but they have a ring of truth. It has been noticeable that Pietersen has been more involved in on-field laughter and, off the pitch, that he has been working with other batsmen in the nets. His local knowledge and contacts have been utilised, too, by a squad of whom 10 have never toured India before. It is not a different Pietersen - a chastened, cowering Pietersen - but the same confident man as before; just one who now fully understands his role within the squad.
|"Winning the Ashes in Australia was a tough challenge but it felt even better at the end of it because it was tough. If it was easy it's not as much fun if you come out on top." Matt Prior on England's task in India|
"We wouldn't want KP to change too much because it is how he is that makes him special as a player," Prior said. "If Kev suddenly came as this shy, introverted character I would be more worried. I want him to go out and express himself. I'm glad he's come back the same KP as he was. The important thing is this group all pulling together in the right direction and Kev, the character that he is, pulling with us makes us a far stronger team and that is happening right now.
"Kevin is in our team and in our squad. It is as good as it has been since I've been in this England side."
Prior is one of the few to emerge from the Pietersen debacle with his reputation enhanced. It was Prior who attempted to break the deadlock by phoning Pietersen and initiating a frank but constructive conversation and, over recent months, he has grown into the role of a key leadership figure in the England set-up.
"I like that role," Prior said. "I genuinely believe that it's the team in big situations that win you games and get you out of holes. It's about 11 blokes pulling in the same direction rather than one or two or three individuals. Obviously individual performances always help. But it's the group that is stronger than anything. That is why I feel so strongly about the team pulling together."
The loss of Steven Finn is substantial. He is developing into a hostile and skilful fast bowler and, in practise on Sunday, bowled with such pace that Richard Halsall, the England assistant coach who was keeping wicket, described the experience as "genuinely quite scary". But, reasoning that it would be unwise to go into a Test with two bowlers under something of an injury cloud, England have decided to go with Stuart Broad.
"It's a setback," Prior said. "I'm sure the coach and captain would want to choose from every player who's out here but we have lot of strength in depth in the squad. It's one thing that's made our squad so strong over the last couple of years."
The key to the series may well prove to be how England deal with the Indian spinners. And, perhaps, how they deal with the scars of the series against Pakistan in the UAE when all their
"That series is always in the back of your mind," Prior admitted. "But, as an international sportsman, you have to be pretty thick skinned and able to move on. I hope we learn from our experiences and mistakes and take them forward into these Test matches.
"I think it's going to be tough. But out of those tough challenges come your great rewards. Winning the Ashes in Australia was a tough challenge but it felt even better at the end of it because it was tough. If it was easy it's not as much fun if you come out on top."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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