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A real Test for England


Paul Wood | 1:23pm gmt 11 Dec 2008
FeaturesThe atrocities that took place in the City of Mumbai will never be forgotten, but England have now finally received the green light to progress with the Indian tour, and cricket will be doing its utmost to bring a welcome distraction to the nation.

The passion for cricket in India is immense, and if anything can provide a tonic to lift spirits following recent events, then seeing M.S. Dhoni lead out his men on December 11th, might just be what is needed.

England have an almighty task on their hands. They must ensure they are in the best mental state possible as they embark upon one of cricket's most daunting challenges. A number of players are still smarting from the poundings they took in the One-Day Internationals, and a lack of meaningful cricket prior to the Test series (ie Tour games and even outdoor practice) will leave some members of the party with little time to become accustomed to the conditions.

Throw into the mix the fact that this Indian side is carrying bags of confidence into the series following their resounding victory over Australia, and you get an indication of the size of the task England are facing.

So, if England are to rise to the occasion and cause, what is becoming a rather dominant India side, one or two headaches, what lessons can they learn from watching the recent India-Australia battle ?

Well, on occasions the best chance Australia had of grabbing a vital early wicket was via a run out. Virender Sehwag and Gautan Gambhir on the whole ran excellently, the understanding between the two (both openers play first-class cricket for Delhi) was very good, often a glance at each other was enough, and they ran aggressively. Sehwag, especially, is known for his powerful, audacious strokeplay, yet his ability to rotate the strike early is not to be under-estimated. England must be sharp in the ring, these two will mis-judge a run here or there and Paul Collingwood and co must take advantage. One Australian fielder remarked, during play, that Gambhir, who must be in the form of his career to date, may have been run out up to seven times during the series, England cannot allow such let-offs and must capitalise on any indecision.

Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss must show similar intent when it's England's turn with the bat, not allowing a particular bowler to seize up his opponent, regular singles will inevitably frustrate what is a hugely talented bowling attack.

Australia uncharacteristically plodded through their innings' with few signs of attempting to dominate an admittedly streetwise Indian attack. England must display more intent and not through thoughtless attempts to hit boundaries. The singles, the hard run two's and three's interspersed with positive strokeplay is a certainty to get the home side on the back foot. In theory it is a plan that cannot fail, yet it is carrying out such strategies that will be the real test.

The need for sizeable first innings totals cannot be understated. This is a general rule for success the world over, however, the importance of getting your runs on the board at the first time of asking in India is vital. The pitches deteriorate, there becomes a distinct lack of pace in the wicket, and the role of the match-winning spinner increases. The quicker bowlers, too, will enjoy the inconsistent bounce that takes place in the latter stages.

This wasn't the case though during the last Test played at Chennai - where this series gets underway. Again, there had been some rain around prior to the Test, consequently a stale, turgid pitch was produced, and no chance of a result in the five days played between the hosts and South Africa. There was just under 1,500 runs scored in only two and a half innings, emphasising the need for England's batsmen to turn up at the first time of asking.

Reverse swing is also a major factor in the sub-continent. The abrasive surfaces make reversing the ball possible very early into an innings. Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan gave India an advantage in this area, knowing the conditions well, they got the ball to swing late and found the perfect length to make most use of the skill. Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, and Stuart Clark found it very difficult to move the ball off the straight once the new ball hardness had disappeared (Shane Watson managed on occasions to get some shape into the batsman with the old ball), and without a top class spinner, they experienced some very long days in the field. Whoever is selected in England's starting eleven must ensure the condition of the ball remains conducive for movement, giving the likes of Andrew Flintoff, Jimmy Anderson, and possibly Amjad Khan, the best possible chance to achieve some swing.

If Australia went into the series lacking a decent spinner, then England will be confident they have one in Monty Panesar. The lack of a genuine arm ball continues to loom over Panesar, but I'm sure he will have taken note of Jason Krejza's performance in the final Test. The Aussie off-spinner was taken for a number of runs, and naturally spins the ball the opposite way to England's tweaker, but the lessons remain the same. Krejza showed guts in continuing to give the ball flight, tempting the batsman to play one elaborate shot too many. The more air he gave it, the more responsive the pitch. He extracted helpful bounce and ample turn while maintaining a good positive line outside off stump.

Of course Kevin Pietersen calling right at the toss will be a great start and enable Panesar, and possibly Graeme Swann, the chance to enjoy more influence in the outcome with bowling in more favourable conditions in the fourth innings.

Cricket always has a high importance in India, and while the most recent display of brutality puts a game into perspective, it is hoped this series will get cricket back in the newspaper headlines.

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