India v England, 1st Test, Ahmedabad November 14, 2012

England 'ready' to right sharp decline


Like two former champion heavyweights now consigned to the undercard, India and England come into this series desperate to recapture former glories. Both have declined sharply since respectively attaining the No. 1 Test ranking and, while South Africa and Australia have taken top billing, they find themselves at a crossroads: win this series and they earn another shot at the big time; lose and they face some awkward questions.

The phoney war, at least, is over. After three weeks in India and a great deal more spin off the pitch than on it, England are as ready as they will ever be to face what is, arguably, the biggest challenge in the sport: beating India in India.

At first glance, the series should not be close. India are unbeaten at home in eight years; England have not won a series in India for 28 years and, since then, have only won one of 11 Tests. England's record against spin is hardly promising, either.

Yet, despite all that, England may never have a better opportunity to beat India in India. It is not just that India are a side in transition - they have already lost VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid - but the form and fitness of several of remaining players is under scrutiny.

There is also more pressure on India. Victory is not just expected of them; it is demanded. Their pride is built upon their strong home record. If England are not the pushover some are expecting then there will be those in the Indian camp - not least their coach, Duncan Fletcher - peering over their shoulders nervously.

Perhaps that explains why India have taken some remarkable risks in the run-up to this series. The policy of denying England access to high-quality spin or turning wickets does mean that England will go into the Test lacking match practise in one key part of the game, but it has also allowed them the chance to gain form and confidence. Every one of the top seven has passed 50 at least once.

India also appear to have taken a risk with the pitch for the Ahmedabad Test. It is not just that it is relaid - and relaying a Test pitch two months before a game means no-one can predict how it will play - but that it has been relaid with a higher proportion of sand and a more brittle type of clay. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that India expect it to break up and offer substantial assistance to the spinners sooner rather than later.

This England team has made something of a habit of breaking barriers. They won the World T20, they won in Australia. Winning in India is as difficult but they can do it.

But what if England set a challenging first innings total and utilise the crumbling pitch when they bowl? What if England's seamers gain as much from the surface as India's spinners? What if Swann enjoys the best of the conditions? India's tactics are not those of a side that truly believes in its own ability. If they did, they would surely prepare the best possible cricketing surface and back themselves to prevail.

History tends not to recall subtleties. Accepted wisdom tells us that England were crushed in the UAE and thrashed by South Africa, but that is not the full story. They might, should even, have beaten Pakistan had they not capitulated so feebly against spin - they were set just 145 in the second Test and dismissed Pakistan out for less than 100 in the third.

Similarly, they went into the final session of the second and third Tests against South Africa with potentially a winning positions. For all the criticism they have attracted of late, it is worth remembering that if they win this series handsomely and Australia defeat South Africa, England will return to No. 1 in the Test rankings. They have not fallen so far as some suggest.

England have suffered one major reverse on this tour. The loss of Steven Finn, by some distance the quickest bowler on either side, deprives England of a key method of attack. While he should be back to full fitness for the second Test in Mumbai, England will be reliant on the subtler skills of Tim Bresnan in the meantime. But it bodes well for them that towards the end of the final warm-up game, Bresnan appeared to have recovered both his nip and his ability to reverse swing the ball.

The crux of the series, though, remains England's ability to play spin. If they do not improve substantially on their efforts in the UAE, they will be beaten. While they went into that series complacent and under prepared, they go into this one focussed and informed.

While, in the long term, they will need to review their policy - albeit a policy they will not admit to having - of not allowing "mystery" spin in English domestic cricket and, perhaps, look at the surfaces Championship games are played upon if they are really to master their spin issues, they are as well prepared as any England touring party to India has been. As Alastair Cook put it: "We're ready."

There are other concerns. There is the catching, there is Stuart Broad's lack of potency in the series against South Africa and there is the doubt about the strength of the renewed team spirit. Of all those issues it is the slip catching that should provoke most anxiety. Cook, for his many admirable qualities, has rarely looked assured in the cordon and the decision to place him at first slip is a mistake.

This England team has made something of a habit of breaking down barriers. In early 2010 they became the first England side to win a global limited-overs trophy - the World T20 in the Caribbean - and, less than a year later, they became the first England side to win in Australia for more than two decades. Winning in India is just as difficult. But they can do it.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on November 16, 2012, 6:53 GMT

    England quicks have no variation, no cutters, no reverse , no speed variation. When the swing is gone they look donkeys( quoting Nasser hussain ) . England are loins at home, can't win a single game in subcontinent and that 50 % of world cricket

  • Randolph on November 15, 2012, 10:18 GMT

    England were never on the up so I dont know how its a sharp decline. They benefitted from Australia rebuilding, as has every other team who reached 1 in history

  • rob on November 15, 2012, 4:29 GMT

    As an outsider, I can see a lot of potential for either or even both teams to have some sort of implosion in this series. .. on one hand we have England with their recent internal woes coupled with a complimentary form slump while on the other there is India who are just taking their first wobbly steps into the post "big 3" era following their own slump. .. mix in some "revenge & redemption" talk and I think it makes for a pretty volatile mix. .. it's not hard to imagine simmering issues coming to a head out there in the heat and the pressure if things go really badly for either side. .. hopefully that won't happen, but if it does, please give us a good one to justify all the hoohah it will generate.

  • narsimha on November 15, 2012, 4:12 GMT

    big81- i dont think u r memory line is just struck on our last bad performances in ENG, AUS, my dear friend just go beyong those tours , ours is the only team from subcontinent won matches every where in the last decade , infact it is u r team which has nothing to show in IND FOR decades, reg our bowling yaa just refresh u r memory few days back u r team was bundled for penuts i meam 80 odd runs in sl , besides the 5-0 thrashing in odis by our youngesters in IND last time u r team visited ind .

  • Ben on November 15, 2012, 3:17 GMT

    Despite getting drubbed by Pakistan and South Africa England are still a very good team. I think that this series will be closer than alot of people expect. Similarly, India are backing up after being on the receiving end of two whitewashes but I think they still have the quality to be very competitive on subcontinent pitches. My prediction is 2-1 to India. Should be great to see how the English bats go against Ojha and Ashwin on rank turners. I think Cook, Trott and KP will stand up again, Bell will get found out. James Anderson's comments about Tendulkar were right on the money too. He is a great player and undoubtedly the second-best batsman ever, but you can't respect him too much if you want to be fired-up enough to beat him.

  • Rod on November 15, 2012, 3:17 GMT

    Well, it's nearly bedtime here in the US. When I wake up tomorrow the first day's play will be over and we should have some idea of what sort of series it's going to be. Good luck to both teams and let's hope for some real excitement. Wish I could follow it live.

  • Rob on November 15, 2012, 2:57 GMT

    MadhavY - sporting spirit ie. Played in the right way without hissy fits from Broad or Harbajan.

  • Dummy4 on November 15, 2012, 2:49 GMT

    What england have in their strengths is K.P,bell and swann... but every one is forgetting about strauss... if he should have been there then england would have a real chance.... right now the indian batting leading by the GOD will come into picture.and indian spinners will create mayhem throughout this winter......

  • Pritthijit on November 15, 2012, 2:22 GMT

    England form has dipped this year and shown to struggle against spin bowling. I still think England have a great chance of winning in India and make history. The visitor boosts a quality bowling attack and an experience batting line up. India form has been ragged. Sehwag and Gambhir are losing their wickets cheaply. They have not put on a good partnership for a long time. The little master is getting clean bowled. If England dismisses the top three, then it puts England in a commanding position and puts pressure on an inexperienced Indian middle order batting line at test level. Although India's spin bowling is promising at present, the pace bowling paints a different picture. Z.Khan will feel the heat as he has not been bowling well. India still struggle to find quality pace bowlers. On balance, England looks a stronger team. Can India silence the critics by handling the pressure? India needs to knuckle down by playing inspiring cricket.

  • Rohanj on November 15, 2012, 1:54 GMT

    Looking forward to this series, both sides exposing each others many frailties for Australia to exploit in the next few months. England overall is vastly better than India but is weak against spin. India is weak in many aspects- batting, pace bowling, fielding etc- but is at home and playing on its own heavily doctored sandboxes. My predictions: Kohli and Cook best batsmen for each side, Pietersen accused of putting Deep Heat in England players jocks, India opening almost every innings with a spinner or atleast after 5 overs when Zaheer gets injured, Tendulkar declares he's going for twenty thousand test runs even if it takes another twenty years, BCCI declares they own test cricket and then have it banned until all countries pay them a royalty of 10 million bucks a game, Harbhajan says he loves playing England but that Australia can go suck his bails!

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