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England would need to improve their slip-catching, have patience and confidence against spin, stick to each other and embrace India to ensure a successful tour
George Dobell in Ahmedabad
November 14, 2012
Improve their catching
England's slip catching - or, more accurately, their lack of slip catching - cost them dear in the series against South Africa. Hashim Amla was the most obvious beneficiary - he was dropped early at The Oval and Lord's where he made a triple-century and century respectively - but Alviro Petersen also survived a simple chance at Leeds. It may not be an exaggeration to say that England might still be rated No.1 in the Test rankings if they had held on to those chances.
On the face of things, it is hard to see how they will have improved. Andrew Strauss, the man who took more catches than any England player, has retired, meaning that two of the more reliable close catchers - Paul Collingwood was the other - have departed within a couple of years.
In this series, Alastair Cook will stand at first slip and Graeme Swann at second slip to the seamers. Swann will be in the slips if only one is required. Jonathan Trott will be the slip fielder when the spinners are bowling. That means that James Anderson, one of England's most naturally gifted fielders, will not be asked to field in the cordon. Anderson uncharacteristically dropped several chances against South Africa, leading the England management to conclude that he required a mental break between spells of bowling.
Perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over Cook's ability in the slips. It was Cook who dropped Petersen at Leeds, and in the warm-up game against Haryana, several balls went through between the wicketkeeper Matt Prior and Cook. He did also take one fine catch, however, and has demonstrated on numerous occasions that, presented with a challenge, he tends to find a way to overcome.
One thing is for certain: on flat pitches and against a batting line-up containing some big names, England will need to claim a far higher percentage of chances if they are to remain competitive in the series. Taking 20 wickets will be hard enough. If the bowlers need to make 25 chances each game, victory may become impossible.
Play to their strengths
Amid all the talk of the pitches and England's problems against spin, it might be forgotten that India are in a period of transition. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman have already departed and it may well be that Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar follow soon. The current Indian spinners, too, wouldn't offer the threat of some of their predecessors. They are beatable.
England have a well-balanced attack, who have experienced one poor game, at The Oval, in recent years, and five batsmen who average in excess of 40 in Test cricket. Not so long ago, the defeated India 4-0. If they stick to their own game plans and are not intimidated by the conditions or the hype, they could become the first England side to win in India in nearly 30 years.
Combat the spin threat
England's record against high-quality spin bowling is not good. They have not won a series in India since 1984-85 and, excluding those in Bangladesh, have not won a series in Asian conditions since 2001. This year they failed to cope with Saeed Ajmal's variations or Abdur Rehman's pace on the uniquely skiddy surfaces of the UAE and then struggled against Rangana Herath in the Test in Galle.
Concluding that they can exploit England's frailties, it appears India are likely to produce pitches tailor-made for their spinners.
The pitch in Ahmedabad has been re-laid as recently as September, and contains a greater percentage of sand and a different type of clay (field clay rather than pond clay). While no one is certain how the pitch will play - there has been no match of note upon it - it is anticipated that it will deteriorate quickly and offer substantial assistance later in the game. That could, however, present an opportunity for England's bowlers - seamers and spinners - too.
England's form with the bat in the warm-up games - prolific though it has been - did not convince their opposition. Both Haryana spinners, Amit Mishra and Jayant Yadav, were unimpressed by England's ploy of coming down the pitch to them early in their innings and felt that, on more responsive wickets, they would struggle. England will also go into the Tests having faced little quality spin in the warm-ups and having played on largely unresponsive wickets.
But perhaps their record is not quite as bad as some suggest. Most of England's top order have shown they can, at times, combat quality spin bowling. England improved markedly in Colombo and appeared comfortable against Sunil Narine in their own conditions. It is worth remembering, too, that the England World T20 team, which struggled against spin, did not contain Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Matt Prior or Nick Compton. It was, in short, a different side.
Accepting that it is an area that requires improvement, however, England arranged a lengthy warm-up period before the Test series and have worked hard to improve their techniques and game plans against spin. Graham Gooch, the batting coach, and Mushtaq Ahmed, the spin coach, have helped Andy Flower devise methods for combating the challenge ahead, and England have also utilised the services of psychologist Dr Mark Bawden to ensure the bad memories of the series in the UAE do not play on their minds in this series.
It seems England will take a positive approach to batting against spin. It was noticeable in the warm-up games that the batsmen used their feet to hit over the top early in their innings. "You have got to find a way of scoring against good spin bowlers so you can exert a little bit of pressure back on them," Gooch said. "It's not always just about keeping them out; it's not all about just occupying the crease. You have got to find a way of scoring."
"There isn't a right or wrong way of playing spin," Graeme Fowler, who became the first England player to score a Test double-century in India as part of the successful team of 1984-85, said. "I couldn't sweep and I couldn't come down the wicket. I was useless at those things so I decided to cut them out of my game. But I found ways of scoring that worked for me. I cut and I hit down the ground. If England play within their limitations and give themselves time, there's no reason they can't do well."
"Giving themselves time" will be crucial. On slow wickets and against tight bowling, there will be occasions when England's batsmen do not know where their next run will come from. In the UAE, they panicked in such positions and, in attempting to break the shackles, attempted sweep shots that often caused their downfall. It was a problem in the series against South Africa, too. Tied down by consistent bowling, even batsmen as mentally strong as Jonathan Trott lost focus and were lured into rash shots. It is, often, not great individual deliveries that bring wickets, but sustained pressure.
"That's when people try something different," Fowler said. "That's when they go beyond their limitations and get themselves out.
"You can reverse the pressure. If you withstand everything the bowler can throw at you for a few overs, you may well force them to try something different and that is when your scoring opportunity will come.
"And it does get easier. When I first faced Abdul Qadir I had no idea how to play him. But then I worked out that it was his googly that was most dangerous to me, so I played every ball as if it were a googly. That gave me the time to see a bit more of him and gradually I learned to pick him. But giving yourself time and not throwing it away is absolutely key."
It is just as important to be patient in the field. "There will be times when it is hot and there is nothing happening," Fowler said. "And times when the bowlers and fielders are frustrated. That is when you have to keep plugging away, when you have to keep expecting a chance and be ready to take it. And, most importantly, it's when you have to stick together as a team."
Team unity and the KP factor
Matt Prior put it best. "It's the group that is stronger than anything," England's wicketkeeper 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 eleven blokes pulling in the same direction rather than one or two or three individuals."
But it's no secret that there have been times of late when Kevin Pietersen's relationship with his England colleagues has been tempestuous. It is also no secret that the team is stronger with Pietersen in it and performing well. No other England batsman can turn a game as quickly as Pietersen.
In the heat of India and during a series that is expected to be, at times, tough and frustrating, the strength of England's new team spirit is sure to be tested. As Trott put it, it is "when the pressure is on and the chips are down, that's when you need people to perform. That's when if cracks are tested then they widen and it becomes more obvious with regards to performance and team dynamics."
|"They don't all have to be the best of friends. They just have to understand and respect each other. They have to have a working relationship. But you do have to have that bond in India. You do have to help each other or the team can fall apart." Graeme Fowler|
Pietersen is not the only issue. England's bowlers, in particular, also need to guard against haranguing their fielders if they make mistakes. Not only could this provoke resentment, but it increases pressure on the fielder and makes it more likely that they will err the next time they field. Samit Patel, in particular, was on the receiving end of some fearsome ear-bashings in Sri Lanka. It is hard to see how they are constructive.
The early signs are good. Alastair Cook may be a new captain, but he is strong, determined and respected by his colleagues. It was Cook's determination to include Pietersen in his side that precipitated the 'reintegration' process and, in the admittedly low-pressure atmosphere of the warm-up games, it was noticeable that Pietersen was included in the on-field banter. The management have also encouraged his inclusion by asking him to help the other batsmen and by utilising his local knowledge. It is several years since Pietersen has seemed so much a part of the squad.
"They don't all have to be the best of friends," Fowler explained. "They just have to understand and respect each other. They have to have a working relationship. But you do have to have that bond in India. You do have to help each other or the team can fall apart."
With security concerns limiting the options of the 1984-85 touring team, they squad spent a great deal of time together in the hotel. "We saw that as an opportunity," Fowler said. "It was when we really got to know one another. Each night the lights tended to go out for an hour or so and we would just play murder in the dark. It sounds silly, I know, but we got to enjoy one another's company and that really helped unite us when things were tough on the pitch."
India does not present the challenge to England touring squads that it once did. These days the country boasts high-quality hotels and travel options. It was not always so. Gone, too, are the days when the grounds were full of passionate supporters. India may still present a culture shock to those touring for the first time, however, with Fowler describing it as "sandpaper on the senses."
"Every sense is increased," he said. "You are overwhelmed by the beauty, the poverty, the crowds and the space all at once."
His advice? "Dive in," he said. "It is a wonderful place, full of beauty and friendly people. If you go through the tour thinking 'the food isn't like home; the road aren't like home' you'll hate it. Don't fight it; enjoy it."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
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