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There has been a quiet confidence around the England team in the build-up to the Kolkata Test and a sense that history is within their grasp
December 4, 2012
It says much for how quickly things can change that England go into the third Test in Kolkata not so much fearing a turning surface, but regarding it as something of an opportunity.
It would be stretching a point to claim that England's problems against spin bowling are resolved. After all, only three England batsmen have passed 50 so far in the series and a case could be made to suggest that the excellence of Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook has masked the struggles of some of their colleagues. Certainly more will be required of Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell and co. if England are to win the series.
But the victory in Mumbai not only showed that England's batsmen were learning, it also showed that England had weapons of their own in such conditions. In Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann they have spinners who utilise a turning pitch every bit as well as their India counterparts. India, for all their reputation as masters of such conditions, looked mightily uncomfortable against them in Mumbai.
The Mumbai result will not alter India's tactics to any great extent and nor should it. Not only would it be unwise to read too much into one result, but they have few options for a Plan B anyway. Their batsmen play better on pitches of low bounce and England's batsmen have, historically, struggled against spin in such conditions.
"We should still stick to turning tracks, because that's what our strength is," India's captain MS Dhoni said at the pre-match media conference. "That's what home advantage means.
"If you come to India, why do you want to play on wickets that are flat for the first three or four days? Sometimes even five days is not enough to get a result. We lost the last game, but still we want to play on wickets that suit the sub-continent. It is what the sub-continental challenge is all about.
"We are a side that relies a lot on the openers, but we don't really want to put the extra pressure on them. It doesn't matter if we lose a few games, or if we win the series, the crucial thing is that a cricketer who has played five or six years can say 'I went to the sub-continent, and the wickets were turning and bouncing and I scored runs or I failed'."
It is, in many ways, an admirable policy. The last thing Test cricket needs as it fights for its place in the world is a series full of bore-draws.
The fact is, however, that by trying to land a knockout blow on England, India have left themselves open to a counter punch. By insisting that the pitches will assist the spinners, India may just have given England an opportunity to steal a highly unusual series win. Instead of drawing England into a war of attrition in conditions for which they are ill-suited, India have provided both teams with a route to victory.
As England captain, Alastair Cook, put it: "The Mumbai Test proved that a turning wicket gives both sides a chance. It gave us a great chance of winning as it was a result wicket. If you go in on real flat ones it can be very hard to get a result. I'm not quite sure how this wicket will play. I don't think it will have the bounce Mumbai had - it hasn't got that red clay - but all the reports say that, after especially after day three, it will turn, so that brings both our excellent spinners into the game."
It may also prove to have been a risk to stage this game on another used wicket. This pitch was used for a four-day game that finished on November 20 and nobody can confidently predict how it will play by the time it is seven or eight days old. There is very little precedent for such a tactic in Test history. If India find themselves bowling at England in the fourth innings as the pitch crumbles, it will look wise. But if they are bowled out by the England spinners in the fourth innings it will look reckless.
India have allowed England the oxygen of belief. Coming into this tour, the scars inflicted upon the England batsmen by Pakistan in the UAE were still clearly visible. Now, however, with a morale-boosting victory behind them, all the pressure is on India. It is the Indian players who are fighting for their international futures.
Whoever wins the toss will surely bat. The relative cool brings the possibility that the ball will assist the seamers in the first hour, although the effect of a 9am start should not be over-exaggerated considering that India only has one timezone and Kolkata, on the east coast, sees the sun rise earlier than most.
With England likely to bring in Steven Finn for the jaded Stuart Broad, the tourists go into this game with their first-choice attack for the first time in the series. For India, who are likely to revert to an attack comprising two seamers and two spinners, the loss of Umesh Yadav, the most incisive seamer on either side in Ahmedabad, looks more costly all the time.
Cook expressed support for Broad - "I'm very glad he's English and I'm glad he's in this squad. He's a fantastic player and he's put in fantastic performances this year and over his career" - and for Jonathan Trott - "He's not having the year he would probably like to have, but you can't write off people with quality like that" - but acknowledged that England required more contributions throughout the side if they were to win.
India, meanwhile, have questions to answer about several senior players - not least Yuvraj Singh, who averages only 34.38 in Test cricket and has not scored a century since 2007, and Sachin Tendulkar, who has not reached 30 in his last 10 Test innings. If they lose their proud home record, searching questions might need to be asked about the direction in which Indian cricket is travelling.
No-one disputes that India have, over the last few years, marketed the game - or certain aspects of the game - with unprecedented success. Perhaps, however, somewhere along the way, the style has obscured the lack of substance. It required a decade of humiliation before England acted to reverse their decline. Perhaps, in the long term, a series defeat would be a wake-up call Indian cricket requires.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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