England in India 2008-09 November 13, 2008

England face up to the new Empire-builders

There is only one thing more complex than the laws of cricket, and that is the relationships between the various nations who take part in the sport.

Kevin Pietersen: A wanted commodity © Getty Images

There is only one thing more complex than the laws of cricket, and that is the relationships between the various nations who take part in the sport. The oldest and most fabled rivalry may be the Ashes, but England and Australia's matey rapport is a cosy drink in the pub compared to some of the clashes of culture that crop up on the itinerary.

One of the biggest, however, also happens to be one of the most sullen and brooding. When England and India face each other on the cricket field, there are few of the histrionics that have coloured England's clashes with Pakistan down the years, or India's recent confrontations with Australia, or above all, their uniquely passionate relationship with Pakistan.

In fact, for large swathes of the game's existence, there has hardly been a rivalry at all. When India first toured England in 1932, they were captained by a Maharajah whose tally of Rolls Royces was greater than the number of runs he managed in the whole tour (two), and in 1952, two years before Pakistan marked their first tour with an unbelievable victory at The Oval, India were reduced to 0 for 4 by Fred Trueman at Leeds - the worst start to a match in Test history.

Of course it hasn't always been that one-sided. The majesty and quality of India's batsmen - from Sunil Gavaskar via Mohammad Azharuddin to Sachin Tendulkar - have habitually charmed their English audiences, and when unleashed in their own conditions, secured totals so formidable that England have not emerged victorious from the subcontinent since 1984-85. But, true to form, that statistic has regularly been disguised by gripes about the pitches, the umpires, the weather, and any other excuse that could fit the occasion.

Yes, it wouldn't be unfair to suggest that, for years, England's attitude to the jewel of their Empire has been patronising at best, and something more sinister at worst. But, with the exception of a heady period in the 1970s when India's spin bowlers were the envy of the world, they have seemed quite content with their role as genial also-rans. In sport, as in life, the sheer size and potential of the country was at odds with its standing in the world.

Until now, that is.

Now, all of a sudden, the giant is awakening, and England are beginning to wish that they could roll back the decades and correct all the slights (perceived or otherwise) that were allowed to accumulate over the years. The game that started as an English pastime and continued sedately in that vein for more than 100 years has, in the past decade, exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry, based around the Asian market. India was once the servant, but now, unequivocally, it is the Empire-builder.

The action that takes place on the pitch in the coming weeks is only the visible manifestation of a power struggle that runs right to cricket's core. At stake are the values that England carried throughout the years it enjoyed hegemony in the game, and cherish to this day - in particular the future of Test cricket, the stately five-day version of the game, whose existence is being squeezed by the market forces that have driven India to the financial heights, and which (understandably) put a higher price on speed and spontaneity than grit and determination.

The itinerary for the tour reflects the changing priorities. When England toured India in 1981-82, there were six Test matches (all of them stultifyingly dull, as it happens, even to the purist!). Now there are only two, and instead the bulk of the action revolves around a seven-match one-day series. Three years ago, in the corresponding campaign, England treated the trip with borderline contempt, and were lucky to emerge with a 5-1 scoreline.

Now, however, they are likely to be rather more switched on. Watching their every move will be the movers and shakers of the Indian Premier League, the domestic tournament that sprung into existence last April, and is the most dramatic demonstration of India's new-found might. Key England players such as Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff could earn seven-figure contracts if they took up the offers that have come their way, while the marketable stars of the future, especially Stuart Broad, are also very much on the wish-list.

It is a prospect that fills England's administrators with dread, because (save for the largesse bestowed by the Texan billionaire, Allen Stanford) they have no fiscal might with which to retaliate. They can only hope that the pride and heritage that comes from playing for one's country is sufficient to keep the new world order at bay. But even that might not be enough if India moves on from flexing its muscles, and goes in for the knockout blow.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo