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England Throws the Gauntlet
08 Mar 2006
By: Sudeep Popat


England were touted to perform well, even challenge for a Test series win, on their tour of the subcontinent, on the back of their famous victory against the world champs last year. However, Pakistan thrashed its dreams, defeating them 2-0 in the three-Test series, thus throwing doubts as to whether they are capable enough to clinch a full series in this part of the region. On their last tour to India, the rain gods made sure that a conclusive result wasn't possible, but they did show glimpses of grit under the able leadership of Nasser Hussain, in midst of vulnerability. One Test on this series, it is evident that England has improved immensely since the last time we saw them here, and despite the Pakistan debacle, are still a major threat.

Wounded, But Not Weak
Going into the first Test at Nagpur, England had quite a handful of problems that needed to be worked out so as to offer some sort of resistance to a rejuvenated Indian side. The fact that the Board President's XI easily beat the visitors at Baroda, and that some of their best players, including the captain, Michael Vaughan, were out injured, must have been a head ache for the management. With vice-captain, Marcus Trescothick, too absent, Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff was promoted to the helm of affairs, and despite pessimism regarding his ability to lead he came out with flying colours in the first Test, leading England to at least three days of dominance over the hosts. It wasn't until late on the last day that Freddie was put in some sort of a pressure, which must be a compliment for him.

Young Guns Fire
Trescothick's absence meant that England had to try a new opener to partner Andrew Strauss, who has been out of form for a while, after the magical start he had to his Test career. In was brought Alistair Cook. Not many of us here in India would have heard of him before, but the lanky left-handed opener had already earned quite a few followers back home, especially down south near his home county, Essex. Cook, a former Under-19 captain, scored a half century in the first innings, pivoting the top order, and followed up with a century in the second, as England were looking to increase their lead. Despite the big occasion of debuting, he looked calm and collected, and went about scoring his runs without much of a fuss. He is technically adept to open, and it would be a good challenge for the selectors as to what to do with him, when Trescothick returns. Another player, who made his debut, was left-arm orthodox spinner, Monty Panesar. England is without its premier spinner, Ashley Giles, and with only Ian Blackwell to support him, it was absolutely necessary for Panesar to bowl well, and more importantly trouble the Indian batsmen. He picked up a handful of wickets, bowling much, much better than Blackwell; one of the highlights of the match was his first innings dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar.

The Battle of the Middle Order
With India's pace department lacking the penetration England's possesses, and England's spin department weakened by Giles's absence, it is the middle order of both sides that decides that which side has an upper hand on paper. India is known for an exemplary middle order. But, in the first Test, England showed that they aren't too lacking behind, and when in need, their middle order can fire as well. Paul Collingwood is turning into a silent grafter, who in the last year and half has amassed quite a few runs, without being overtly noticed. His century in the first innings is but an example of how he has rescued England time and again, without coming much into the limelight. Speaking of limelight, Kevin Pietersen, who came onto the international scene with a bang, sort of went into hibernation. But the monster awoke again in the second innings, scoring at almost a run-a-ball in a tailor-made situation for him; and he isn't one to stop when he's on a go. India shouldn't take this England middle order lightly in the next two matches, or else they could well be staring down the barrel.

The Spirit Still Runs Amok
Despite being down (although not out) for a large part of the first Test, India showed their newly acquired undying spirit, when with hardly 20 overs remaining and almost 180 runs required to win, they went for a dash at it. This new found aggression will only liven up Test matches, which as a rule the general audience finds ho-hum compared to the shorter version of the game. The fact that Freddie Flintoff panicked and sent the fielders helter-skelter, within just a few big hits from Irfan Pathan, shows what a reputation the likes of him, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Co. have gained in their short careers so far. Specifically though, it was the approach Tendulkar took in that situation that would be a ray of hope for the master-blaster's loyal fans. He not only absolutely murdered Blackwell in one particular over, but also displayed the sort of innovative approach to gap finding that a lot of critics found missing in him since his return to international cricket last year. If only he can do it on a larger scale, and prove that the magic hasn't died...

The Clash for the Series
Going into the second Test, England has made sure that it is Even Stevens, and that the hopes of a series win haven't been ruled out. On the other hand, India received a jolt that the England team, marred by injuries, is still not a child's play to pass by. The remaining two Tests can only get better from here on in. One of the major attractions would definitely be Munaf Patel, who has been drafted into the side following his exceptional performance against England at Baroda, picking up 10 wickets in the match. Would Cook and Co. be able to fend off the challenge the fastest Indian bowler would pose? Would the English middle order stand tall against the Indian spinners? Would the English pacers be able to cause as much damage as they do in home conditions? Would Monty Panesar prove an unlikely hero, and guide England to a historical win? There's only one way to find out, and that's to tune in to the cricket.

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