Spin the focus in series opener
Match factsNovember 15-19, 2012
Start time 0930 local (0400 GMT)
Big PictureTo most, if not all, Indian players involved in the 4-0 drubbing that culminated at The Oval last August, the countdown to this Test series would have started long ago. The then No.1 Test team wasn't supposed to be whitewashed and yet it was, in a humiliating manner, prompting Geoff Boycott to comment bluntly that India were playing like Bangladesh in disguise.
The word "revenge" hasn't escaped many ever since. Players like Gautam Gambhir, MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli may have stopped short of using the word, but in media interactions over the last year, all three have backed producing rank turners at home to give India a distinct advantage. There's nothing wrong in playing to your strengths, but in this case it can be seen as a defensive ploy, as a quick patch-up job to fix a deep crater in India's recent Test record. It's a similar scenario to the early 90s when, after two poor tours to Australia and South Africa, India ruthlessly unleashed three spinners at home and swept all three Tests against England in 1993. The short-terms gains were obvious, but it couldn't mask the fact that India were still abysmal tourists for more than a decade. India don't tour for a Test series till 2013, but if their overseas record doesn't improve, series wins at home in the interim will be forgotten.
India are unlikely to repeat the tactic in Ahmedabad, as Dhoni said on the eve of the game. Nevertheless, spin will be the focus - not just how the England batsman will fare, but also how India's misfiring line-up can get on top of their own conditions. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir are still due for big scores, but won't find it easy against a quality attack which has a world-class spinner in Graeme Swann. Sachin Tendulkar's defence is not as watertight as it used to be. The No. 6 position is still a revolving door and Yuvraj Singh needs time to finally make the position his own. A one-sided turning pitch could make the fast bowlers redundant. Zaheer Khan is a shadow of his former self and it won't do him any good if he is reduced to a containing bowler supporting the spinners. The more India gains out of his experienced hands at the start of the series, the better.
For England, the rude shocks of the UAE Tests against Pakistan and the home series defeat to South Africa still linger. They arrived in India with ample time to fit in three warm-ups, a rarity in an era when most touring teams struggle to fit in even one practice game. That England asked for three, itself shows that they value Test success highly. The Ashes might be the pinnacle, but subcontinent success is a close second. Since 2000, they've had series victories in Sri Lanka and Pakistan but India has eluded them since 1984-85. Still, there was some discontent regarding the quality of opposition in two of those tour games. Spinners were apparently deliberately kept away, so the tourists don't have enough of a sighting once the Tests get underway.
Though they failed to push for a victory even against Haryana and a second-string Mumbai - not the strongest domestic sides - there were positives. Four of their top six scored centuries and some looked to be positive against the turning ball early in the innings by using their feet. Pitches aside, the time spent in India so far would have at least helped acclimatise to the weather.
Form guideIndia: WWLLL (Completed matches, most recent first)
Players to watchFor all the fuss and drama over Kevin Pietersen's breakdown in relations with England in August, England didn't have his services for only one Test. And they did miss him. Following his Headingley heroics, they headed to Lord's and conceded the series to South Africa. Dhoni said he was "200%" sure Pietersen would return for the India tour. Water has flown under the bridge between him and his team-mates and players say he has been his jovial self all tour. His prowess against spin will be crucial. Rewind to England's Colombo Test in April this year - it was his counter-attacking century that helped England fight back and level the Test series. And he can use his pads with greater freedom, without the threat of DRS at the back of his mind.
England have yet to face India's frontline spinners, R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, with the red ball. They rolled New Zealand over with 18 and 13 wickets respectively in the two-Test series in August and though they may not evoke as much fear as Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh in their prime, they can be formidable against the best Test sides in home conditions. Dhoni sees Ashwin as the attacking option, capable of tossing it up and bringing out his variations, and Ojha as the containing bowler capable of restrictive lines. That Ojha was given the new ball against New Zealand shows his captain's faith in him. For England, Ashwin and Ojha represent the unknown elements.
Pitch and conditionsThe pitch at Motera was 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). It hasn't been tested over a period of time and nobody is quite sure how it will play. Dhoni said it looked dry and will break up as the match progresses, giving the spinners more assistance. From that description, it shouldn't be too different from the typical Indian pitch.
Team newsIshant Sharma was down with a viral infection and was all but ruled out of contention. Either way, India are unlikely to field three seamers and Zaheer and Umesh Yadav remain the first choice. Yuvraj Singh is expected to bat at No. 6, with Suresh Raina not considered for the first two Tests.
India (probable) 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Gautam Gambhir, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Virat Kohli, 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 MS Dhoni (capt & wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 Umesh Yadav, 11 Pragyan Ojha
Steven Finn was ruled out after the England management decided not to risk a half-fit fast bowler in testing conditions. However, Stuart Broad is set to play after recovering from a bruised heel, though he has bowled just 10 warm-up overs on tour. Tim Bresnan is likely to replace Finn, but that spot could also go to Monty Panesar, if England choose to go with two spinners. Nick Compton is certain to debut, as Cook's opening partner.
England (probable) 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Nick Compton, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Samit Patel, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Tim Bresnan / Monty Panesar, 10 Graeme Swann 11 James Anderson
Stats and trivia
- England are among only two visiting teams to beat India in a Test match at home since 2006, the other being South Africa.
- England have played only one Test in Ahmedabad, drawing the game in 2001.
- Since 2006, seamers have taken 45 wickets while spinners have accounted for 33 in Ahmedabad.
Quotes"When we go on the field there will be a red ball and there will be two teams, so you can name it whatever you want."
MS Dhoni when asked if India are looking at this as a 'revenge' series
"What I don't want to change is his confidence, or his swagger when he bats, because that's what has made him such a great player."
Alastair Cook on Kevin Pietersen
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo