India v England, 2nd Test, Mohali December 18, 2008

India must be wary of backlash

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Given that Mohali pitches tend to have a bit more bounce than other Indian ones, Harmison should survive the cull, and with two spinners a necessity rather than a luxury, it should be Anderson who sits out


Despite his rib injury, Kevin Pietersen could be the sort of X-factor for England that Virender Sehwag is for India © Getty Images
 

The last time India played in Mohali, Australia were thrashed by 320 runs. The last time England played here, the same lack of ruthlessness that undermined their challenge in Chennai allowed India to romp to a nine-wicket victory on the final afternoon. In 2001, a Mohali Test had effectively been lost on the opening day, with Harbhajan Singh taking five wickets as England went from 200 for 3 to 238 all out.

That game was played in the first week of December and conditions for this game shouldn't be too dissimilar. Back then, India's spinners took 15 of the 20 wickets, with Anil Kumble taking six in the second innings. For England, Richard Dawson took four wickets on debut, but ended up conceding 134 runs as well. Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann, assuming both play, will need to do considerably better if England are to avoid the sort of hammering that Australia got in October.

Kevin Pietersen admitted that the state of the pitch had made him delay selecting a team until the eleventh hour. There was a smattering of grass on the surface, but it was also dry enough to seem extremely spin-friendly. Against Australia, Amit Mishra took 7 for 106 and Harbhajan 5 for 96. Given the abrasive nature of the pitch though, reverse-swing was likely to be as big a factor. There were dry patches on the main square, and every likelihood of the ball getting scuffed up pretty early. Against Australia, Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan were getting it to reverse within the first 15 overs, and Pietersen accepted his bowlers would need to use the old ball much better than they had in Chennai.

India had no selection issues to ponder. The Rahul Dravid question continues to vex the media, but as Sachin Tendulkar suggested after the Chennai win, the team isn't unduly concerned. "Rahul isn't a good player, he's a great player" was Tendulkar's assessment, and the only question heading into this match was whether he would bat at his customary No. 3 slot, or move down two places to No. 5.

England would have been encouraged by Matt Prior's performance in Chennai after replacing Tim Ambrose, but have issues to resolve regarding the key No. 3 slot. Ian Bell was anonymous in the first Test, and Owais Shah, who made a superb 88 when England won in Mumbai to level the series on their last tour, must surely come into contention. With Stuart Broad, so impressive in the one-day series, also fit to play, the bowling line-up will also be tweaked.

Only Andrew Flintoff and Swann, in patches, impressed in Chennai, and Steve Harmison, James Anderson and Panesar are all under threat of losing their place. Given that Mohali pitches tend to have a bit more bounce than other Indian ones, Harmison should survive the cull, and with two spinners a necessity rather than a luxury, it should be Anderson who sits out.

India's victory against Australia was set up primarily by the openers, who added 252 over the two innings. England got both early in the first innings in Chennai, but failure to do so at the second time of asking cost them the game. Getting Sehwag early is no guarantee of success, but it certainly goes a long way.

As admirably as Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood battled in the first Test, what England need is someone that can provide the same sort of X-factor that Sehwag does. If he can emulate his feats of 2006, when he scored 70 and 51, Flintoff could be that man, but the more likely candidate is Pietersen. A broken rib is undoubtedly a hindrance, but as he likes to stress, Pietersen is nothing if not a winner. After not contributing in Chennai, India should be wary of a backlash.