England in India – Preview

England travel to India this month for the first time since late 2001, looking to put behind them the disappointing 2-0 defeat they suffered in Pakistan two months ago. Both sides begin the series looking to lay claim to the status of the world’s number two Test side behind Australia – England still hold it on the back of their stunning Ashes victory in 2005, but India will be hungry to regain some ground following their recent 1-0 reverse in Pakistan.

Five years ago, the prospect of a touring England side would have seen India’s batsmen licking their lips. These days, England are a very different proposition – providing, that is, that they learn the lessons they should have been taught by their experiences in Pakistan. If they do, this series could see a fascinating battle between two teams with contrasting strengths, weaknesses and styles of play. Both are young sides, and both have a lot to gain from victory.

The Players
England touring squad: Michael Vaughan (captain), Marcus Trescothick (vice-captain), Geraint Jones (wicketkeeper), Matt Prior (reserve wicketkeeper), Ian Bell, Ian Blackwell, Paul Collingwood, Andrew Flintoff, Ashley Giles (ODIs only), Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard (Tests only), Simon Jones, Monty Panesar, Kevin Pietersen, Liam Plunkett, Andrew Strauss, Shaun Udal (Tests only), Kabir Ali (ODIs only), James Anderson (ODIs only).

India squad (possible): Rahul Dravid (captain), Virender Sehwag (vice-captain), Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wicketkeeper), VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh, Sourav Ganguly, Mohammad Kaif, Irfan Pathan, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Rudra Pratap Singh, Munaf Patel, Sree Santh, Vikram Rajvir Singh, Suresh Raina, Gautam Gambhir.

England’s tour begins with a three-day game against the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai on Ferbruary 18-20. This is followed by a hot reception from a President’s XI at Baroda three days later. The side England will face in this game contains many players with international experience – it will be captained by Venugopal Rao, who has 11 ODIs under his belt.

It also includes the likes of Gautam Gambhir and Wasim Jaffer, batsmen looking to push their claims as India continue their quest for a long-term opening pair; as well as Munaf Patel and Vikram Rajvir “VRV” Singh, two young bowlers with genuine pace, who may even force their way into the Test side by the end of the tour.

The tour begins in earnest with the first Test at Nagpur on March 1, and both teams have plenty of selectorial matters to consider before then. England will anticipate turning pitches, and with India sure to pick their usual spin duo of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh at home, the English batsmen cannot afford to have the same trouble they did in dealing with Danish Kaneria and Shahid Afridi in Pakistan. Kumble’s flight and drift, coupled with Harbhajan’s deadly “doosra”, have undone better batting lineups than the current England side.

One can make a reasonable guess as to the makeup of the England top seven in the first Test. It appears likely that, with Andrew Strauss returning after missing the third Test in Pakistan to be at the birth of his first child, Paul Collingwood will be the man to miss out. This would appear harsh, given that Collingwood impressed with innings of 80 and 96 in his last appearance – however, England have no realistic alternative but to ditch him – that is, unless they want to tamper with Duncan Fletcher’s preferred five-bowlers setup.

The only two batsmen in the order who would not be considered undroppable at this stage in their careers are Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell – both of whom scored hundreds two Tests ago. Thus, Collingwood finds himself relegated to the status of “squad player” once again – but with Andrew Flintoff set to miss the third Test at Mumbai for the birth of his second child, Collingwood can expect to make another appearance in the middle-order, barring a tactical reshuffle.

Whilst selecting England’s batsmen may seem a simple process, selecting their bowlers is less so. Just the touring side’s batsmen will not look forward to facing the Indian spinners at home, so the return of Simon Jones to the England fold must worry the Indian batsmen. Jones has fully recovered from the injury which kept him out of the final Ashes Test and the tour of Pakistan, and his ability to take wickets with a new ball or an old one will be crucial to England’s chances. The rest of the England pace attack picks itself – Harmison, Hoggard, Flintoff, and Jones make up the most complete pace attack in world cricket, and assuming England do not choose to play two spinners, they will be reunited this month.

The issue of whether to play one or two spinners is one which Duncan Fletcher will think long and hard about – the absence of Ashley Giles from England’s tour party due to a long-standing hip injury has meant that the three spinners travelling to India have a total of three Tests between them. Fletcher and captain Michael Vaughan will ponder whether to stick with 36-year-old Shaun Udal as a sole spinner, or weaken their tail-end batting further and pick promising youngster Monty Panesar in his stead.

Their other option is Somerset all-rounder Ian Blackwell, but having been called up only as backup once Giles pulled out, Blackwell can be seen as the least likely of the three to play. Fletcher would be unlikely to pick two spinners, given the threadbare resources at his disposal – thus it seems that the “Four Horsemen” of the England pace attack will not be split up, despite the lack of assistance they are likely to receive from the Indian pitches.

For India, selection issues remain muddled, as they usually are. Even in a home series, only eight or nine Indian players can be guaranteed a slot in the batting order when the series begins. Rahul Dravid opened the batting with Virender Sehwag in Pakistan, but the selectors may decide that, despite the mammoth partnership between the two at Lahore, a more long-term solution is necessary. This could result in either Gautam Gambhir or Wasim Jaffer being given another opportunity to partner Sehwag at the top of the order, with Dravid moving down to three, and either Yuvraj Singh or former captain Sourav Ganguly dropping out of the middle order.

Ganguly’s case is an interesting one – he played the first Test of the tour of Pakistan, but did not bat. He was then dropped for the second Test to accommodate a fifth bowler, indicating that he found himself on shaky ground as regards his place in the team. However, he was recalled for the final Test, and was one of few Indian batsmen to show some application in making 34 and 37. He also bowled 18 overs in the match, taking the wicket of Salman Butt in the second innings.

Yuvraj Singh’s second-innings hundred in a lost cause at Karachi in that third Test, however, seems to have pushed Ganguly back to the bottom of the pecking order of Indian batsmen. If Gambhir or Jaffer are to be brought in, or if five bowlers are to be picked, the controversial former captain looks the most likely to lose his spot.

As far as the bowlers are concerned, the selection of Kumble and Harbhajan is a formality, as is that of the blossoming Irfan Pathan, whose form with the bat of late has surpassed many of the Indian top order. The remaining seam bowler’s spot may be filled by Zaheer Khan, as it was in Pakistan, or by Rudra Pratap Singh, who enjoyed a successful debut series alongside Khan.

The other two contenders are pace bowlers Munaf Patel and VRV Singh, as mentioned above – many have claimed that the main component missing from the Indian pace attack is pace itself, and either of those two would provide exactly that, as well as useful lower-order runs.

Cricket Web Players to Watch:
India – Sachin Tendulkar
So much has been written recently about the little man from Mumbai, and about his supposed decline. True, an average of less than 30 from his last 15 Tests against major nations would suggest a slip in performance – but genius of the kind Tendulkar possesses cannot be unlearned. His hundred against Sri Lanka in December showed he still has the hunger for run-making he has always had – as did his dominant century in the recent first ODI against Pakistan. The opportunity exists now for Tendulkar to ensure he does not fade out of international cricket, as would ill befit a player of such greatness. Countless times in the past he has squared up to bowling attacks more skilled and more dangerous than the current England quartet, and countless times he has left them nursing wounded pride and tattered bowling figures. Do not be surprised if the same occurs over the next two months.

England – Marcus Trescothick
As important as the England bowlers will be to their efforts to overcome the much-vaunted Indian batting order, their side will get nowhere if their batsmen do not conquer the home side’s spin attack. Trescothick has for years been England’s best player of spin bowling, and given his partner Andrew Strauss’ inexperience against top-class spin in sub-continental conditions, it is imperative that the vice-captain scores runs. His 193 against Pakistan at Lahore was a masterclass in top-order batsmanship, and he will need to repeat that form if his side are going to post some imposing first-innings totals in the upcoming series. This year will also see him seek to become only the second man, after Australia’s Matthew Hayden, to score 1000 Test runs in four consecutive calendar years.

This series marks Rahul Dravid’s second home series as captain, following the 2-0 success against Sri Lanka last year. He has something to prove as a captain, and there could be few better opportunities to establish one’s credentials than to go head-to-head with the man many would describe as the best captain in today’s international game, Michael Vaughan.

Despite his team’s defeat at the hands of Pakistan, led superbly by Inzamam-ul-Haq, Vaughan has shown during England’s two-year purple patch that he is an innovative and inspirational leader. He outwitted Australian skipper Ricky Ponting on more than one occasion last summer, and will have to do the same to Dravid if England are to overcome the disadvantage of playing in unfamiliar conditions with an inexperienced lineup.

Last time England toured India, they were captained by Nasser Hussain – despite missing several key players, and despite being hammered 4-1 by Australia at home the preceding summer, England managed to escape with a 1-0 defeat against an Indian side captained by none other than Sourav Ganguly. The England team that winter bears almost no resemblance to that of today, however – Matthew Hoggard, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Flintoff are the only members of that team who will play on this tour. The fact that supporting the young Hoggard and Flintoff with the ball in that side were Richard Dawson, Craig White and James Ormond says a lot about the paucity of England’s resources at the time – Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick were both unavailable, leaving Hussain’s side with a threadbare attack.

The one-day series that follows the Test series should provide some excellent entertainment – with England looking to improve on some inconsistent performances in Pakistan, and India looking to build on some excellent one-day cricket in recent months. India’s experimentation with their batting order, including using Irfan Pathan as a pinch-hitter at number three, looks set to continue – one wonders, given their top-order wobbles in Pakistan, whether England may also consider tinkering with their order somewhat, especially given Andrew Strauss’ improved efforts at number three in the absence of captain Vaughan.

England welcome Kevin Pietersen back into their ODI lineup after a rib injury ruled him out of the final three ODIs against Pakistan, and severely hampered his performance in the second. They may also welcome back Ashley Giles, if his hip injury heals over the course of the Test series. India may again give an opportunity to Sreesanth as their SuperSub – although in recent matches, the job has been shared between an extra fast bowler – usually Sreesanth – and an extra batsman, usually Suresh Raina.

India begin both series as favourites – home advantage, plus England’s struggles in Pakistan, have ensured that. England know that if they are to achieve a series victory in India, they will need to be right on top of their game. They also know that victory on the subcontinent is only one rung below victory in Australia, on the ladder they are looking to climb to the top of world cricket. Whatever the outcomes of both these series, a match-up between two exciting teams who play attacking cricket surely cannot lead to a disappointing series, regardless of the state of the pitches……can it?

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