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England prepare for a dogfight in Nagpur Test

Monday, 10 December 2012 - 1:20pm IST | Place: Kolkata | Agency: The Daily Telegraph
Though close on series win, England will face a tough competition from India, which need to save face in the final Test on doctored pitch.

What a symbolic win by England, who now lead the Airtel Test series 2-1 with a match to play. Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, said recently that she wanted Calcutta to be more like London. Alastair Cook's team granted her wish early, their brilliance dispensing with India every bit as easily as they had done at Lord's and the Oval 15 months ago as Eden Gardens became a home from home.

Cook's side cannot lose the series, but while that gives them some handy insurance as they head to Nagpur for the final match, it will not satisfy a team who have dominated pretty much every phase since being beaten soundly in the first Test in Ahmedabad. A series victory, which no England team have achieved here for 28 years, is what they want.

They may need to be prepared for a dogfight on a poor pitch - India will gamble all to win - to achieve that. They will face some fresh faces as well. Before play yesterday (Sunday), Sandip Patil, the chairman of selectors, had long conversations with Duncan Fletcher and MS Dhoni, even wagging his finger at India's coach.

Under that captain-and-coach combination the team have lost 10 of their last 16 Tests, so change seems inevitable, if not the top-to-bottom clear-out suggested by yesterday's Times of India, who would have sacked all but four of the current team, including Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar. In the event, they have made three changes to the squad for Thursday's final Test.

Although England's victory here was not as dominant as the win in Mumbai, after they lost three wickets chasing the 41 runs needed on the final morning, this was a more inclusive performance in which more team members contributed.

With Steven Finn fit, they were able to get their best bowling attack on to the field for the first time in the series and to employ the bowling plans hatched on the drawing boards of Loughborough - which involved pace and reverse-swing posing an equal, if not greater threat, than spin.

James Anderson had his best game in Asian conditions with match figures of six for 127. His aggression and reverse-swing made life extremely uncomfortable for all India's batsmen and, fittingly, he took the final Indian wicket yesterday when he bowled Pragyan Ojha, the off bail taking an age to fall from its grooves.

Needing just 41, England forgot themselves momentarily and tried to rush to victory. This is India and you cannot hurry, especially on a fifth-day pitch, but Cook tried to slog Ravichandran Ashwin over the top and was stumped. It was only the second time he has fallen that way in his career, which shows that even a unflappable player like him is occasionally prone to playing the situation rather than the ball.

If that was a blip, further jitters spread through the camp when Jonathan Trott was lbw to an Ojha delivery that did not turn and Kevin Pietersen was out for nought, caught behind nibbling at a carrom ball from Ashwin. Pietersen made out to the umpire that he had not hit it, but the standard of officiating in this match by Rod Tucker and Kumara Dharmasena was higher than in the first two Tests.

At eight for three all kinds of ogres can start dancing in front of your eyes. Fortunately for England, Ian Bell got a juicy full toss from Ashwin to put away and then another an over later and the nerves were calmed. Indeed, Bell played with the most fluency he has shown this series, scoring 28 off 28 balls to see his team home while Nick Compton dropped anchor at the other end.

With Bell now feeling he has contributed to this tour, England travel to Nagpur, in the heart of the country, with no selection issues whatsoever, a rarity for visiting teams, who traditionally have their strategies pulled this way then that as their teams are unpicked by the spinners and the conditions.

Instead, it is India who have all the thinking to do in the wake of losing back-to-back Tests at home for the first time since defeats by South Africa in 2000.

It will not be easy for Dhoni's team. The national mood has turned ugly and India's players have become used to being pampered and praised rather than rounded upon. There is certainly a perception here that the Indian Premier League has turned them into spoiled brats who no longer love the flag, and it will need something special for many to be disabused of that.

Moderate views rarely get noticed in a country as teeming with opinion as India, so most tend to be strongly for or against. But as one prominent commentator here said off air yesterday: when Rohit Sharma, to pick but one promising batsman yet to play a Test for India, can earn over pounds 4.4?million from the IPL, why does he need to work hard to play Test cricket?

There are other problems. India's cricket has always been based on skill over fitness, which is fine if you keep delivering match-winning performances. But after a good first Test, when he out-finessed England's bowlers with reverse swing, Zaheer Khan has looked pedestrian and low on stamina. Yesterday, he paid the price with his place, which has been taken by Parbinder Awana.

Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh were also dropped from the squad, with left-arm spinning all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja and leg-spinner Piyush Chawla coming in. Others were perhaps fortunate to survive after looking compromised, especially in the field.

By contrast, England have looked sharp and threatening, the pace of Finn a significant factor, especially when the bounce became variable. Also, reverse-swing at 80mph moves early, at 90mph it goes late and is harder to play, hence Finn's five wickets in the match to the two of Zaheer and Ishant Sharma combined.

As the mental well-being of the two teams stands, it is impossible to see how England could lose the next Test on a decent batting pitch, which -Nagpur is said to be. But India are desperate not to lose face and a Test series at home so expect a short, sharp match in Nagpur, where the ground staff are probably taking -pickaxes to the track right now.


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