India v England, 1st Test, Chennai December 10, 2008

The start of a new era?

Cricinfo staff


Win or lose, Kevin Pietersen's England have done the three lions on the crest proud just by being here © Getty Images
 

In recent times, pre-match press conferences have often been the first skirmishes in a little game that Steve Waugh liked to call mental disintegration. Prior to this Chennai Test, though, veiled barbs and snide asides were in short supply, with both captains singing from a Show-must-go-on hymn sheet. It's been a traumatic fortnight for everyone concerned, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni wasn't just speaking for himself when he said: "The best thing that I could give to India at this juncture is a good game of cricket. That is what we are here to do as professional cricketers."

What happened in Mumbai put things into perspective. Cricket, like most sports, borrows many metaphors from the battlefield, but its rightful place in the larger scheme of things was brought home over the 60 hours that cold-blooded assassins ran amok in a hotel that has been home away from home to generations of cricketers. "We were not really thinking about cricket at that point of time," said Dhoni. "When it happened we were so sad. We were glued to the television.

"In that 70 hours or so, I really slept for just six hours. We were not thinking about cricket but thinking about what a ghastly thing was happening over there. It was really tough. The sentiments were quite low. We did a good job not to play the one-day series."

For Kevin Pietersen and his men, the terror attacks meant a trip home and consultations with loved ones and board officials over whether the tour should resume. There have been anecdotes aplenty down the years to illustrate the whingeing-Pom stereotype, but cowardice and lack of commitment certainly won't be labels attached to this English side. Pietersen spoke of how much he and his players love playing in India, and win or lose, they have done the three lions on the crest proud just by being here.

The platitudes will stop tomorrow morning though. For both sides, this is a pivotal series. Pietersen has to ensure that the focus is on the here and now, and an upwardly mobile Indian team, rather than on the Ashes series which is less than a year away. For India, conquerors of Australia not so long ago, this is a chance to push on and make a serious bid for the top ranking.

In many ways, it's also the start of a new era. As Dhoni said at the press conference, modern-day Indian captains had grown so used to Anil Kumble being there as a perennial Plan B [A when it was a turning track] that the idea of going into a series without him seems almost bizarre. Both Amit Mishra and Yuvraj Singh are stepping into large boots, and the best thing they can do is chart their own course. The minute Mishra worries about 600 wickets, or Yuvraj about 7000 Test runs, then they're lost.

The other Indian in the spotlight before the game was Rahul Dravid, once the unshakeable pillar of India's batting. Once again, Dhoni's backing for the struggling titan was unequivocal. "He has been shaping up really well in the net sessions," he said. "We know the amount of talent he has got, and he is also one the most committed cricketers around. He will definitely get scores in the series."

When Pietersen was asked whether he considered Dravid a weak link, he almost scoffed. "I would never say that Rahul Dravid is a soft area of any line-up," he said with a wry smile. "He's a serious player. They don't call him The Wall for nothing."

 
 
England's selection has clearly been influenced by the expectation that the pitch will take turn as it wears, but while the spin tussles will be fascinating, it could be the pace bowlers that break open the game with inclement weather forecast for the next few days
 

England's selection has clearly been influenced by the expectation that the pitch will take turn as it wears, but while the spin tussles will be fascinating, it could be the pace bowlers that break open the game with inclement weather forecast for the next few days. Andrew Flintoff's mastery of reverse swing was a huge factor in England's triumphant Ashes campaign of three years ago, and in Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan, India have two men who can match him.

Tony Greig isn't the only one to be amazed by the strides that Zaheer has made with the ball over the past two seasons, and his tenacity with the bat has also been indicative of a man who truly values each cap he gets. Just as important to Indian hopes will be Harbhajan Singh, who has to assume the Kumble mantle. Too often in the news for the wrong reasons, his renaissance, against Sri Lanka and Australia, came at just the right time.

Monty Panesar will hope to match him, while Pietersen clearly expects big things from the combative Swann. It's the other two components of the attack that have the most question marks surrounding them though. James Anderson can go from red-hot to ice-blue-cold in the same game, while Steve Harmison doesn't travel with the enthusiasm of Dr Livingstone. Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj have been targeted in the past with short-pitched bowling and Harmison's natural length could be the decisive factor if England decide to go down that route.

India start favourites, but mental resilience will play even more of a role than the humidity at a venue that has seen famous English and Indian victories. The crowd's enthusiasm will be essential as men on both sides, shocked out of the protective bubble that they usually inhabit, try to get on with the task of playing a game.