July 15, 2011

A series worth the wait

England v India is compelling enough without the added attraction of the battle for No. 1

As India slip unnoticed into a footballing nation, there is little of the frenzy that is thrust onto cricket back home. That could change, as a full house at Lord's appears on the horizon, but India won't mind that. They have a few things to work on and top of that list would be to give the openers time to get used to the conditions, allow two key players, Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan, to get some match play behind them, and hope Sreesanth finds early form. There are four Test matches but a good start is like holding serve, a bad one like being broken early in the first set; it makes you play catch up.

There is, too, I notice, the prospect of holding on to, or earning, depending on which side you support, the No. 1 slot in Test cricket. But the top spot can be a dream or a target; it cannot occupy your mind, it must happen as a consequence of good cricket, and both teams are capable of producing that. The contest is compelling enough; it doesn't need that context just yet.

England are better than they have been at most times in the last 20 years (I know 2005 happened, and it was brilliant for English cricket, but it was erased far too quickly) because they have many solid, quiet achievers. True, there is the hyped Kevin Pietersen (hyped with good reason occasionally, for he remains, potentially, England's best player of this generation) but there is also the understated Alastair Cook, with an outstanding Test record. For the golden boy Ian Bell, there is the seriously solid Jonathan Trott. Indeed, Trott, Eoin Morgan, Graeme Swann and Chris Tremlett have been outstanding recent selections, proving that when the back room plays for the country it makes it easier for the men on the field to do so.

By slipping past the fancy headlines and stylish adjectives, Trott could well become England's Dravid. He occupies a key batting position and he does it quietly and efficiently, and indeed, that is going to be a very interesting comparison as the series gathers momentum. An emerging champion - and I only say "emerging" because he is relatively young in international cricket - up against one of the very best, who is currently putting up a hand and telling his sunset to return later.

That is true of India's middle order as a whole, actually, the power of their ability holding back the inevitability of the passage of time. But they will be tested here, for Anderson, Tremlett, Swann and either of Bresnan, Finn or Broad will keep them on their toes. That contest is one of the many reasons why I cannot wait for this series to begin.

But those three, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman, in spite of 35,000 Test runs between them would be ideally served if the two left-handers above them see off the new ball. Very few tough contests are won without sterling contributions from the openers, and it is there that England must sense an opportunity. Gautam Gambhir is a seriously good cricketer but he hasn't played in England before, and Mukund, who got a very good review from Ian Bishop, is callow and uncertain. They must expect a lot of bounce coming their way. Gambhir has spoken of how Sehwag's presence takes the pressure off him, and now he must, in his own style, bring calm to a dressing room.

India must also choose between Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh. Raina has emerged more solid from the West Indies and is match-fit. Much as Yuvraj's flowing style is beautiful to watch, Raina has shown that there is steel within him and he has made it very difficult for the selectors to leave him out. India will demand much of him, and a bit more from Dhoni at No. 7. Only occasionally, I get the feeling that Dhoni doesn't allow himself to be the batsman he can be at Test cricket. Good teams win matches from 200 for 5, and for India to do that Dhoni must stand up and remind himself more often of how good he can be.

Four Test matches is fitting for a series as potentially exciting as this. Five might have been even better, especially if it was followed, at some point, by five in India. And as happens so often, the side that bowls better will win. Anderson v Zaheer, Tremlett v Ishant. Broad or Bresnan v Sreesanth and Swann v Harbhajan. Ah, that last one is a treat in itself.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here