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India Test series: Preview

Sunday, 28 October 2012 - 3:31pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Then again, India might feast on flat, slow pitches before their spinners tuck in. A classic series awaits, writes Scyld Berry.

India are vulnerable in Test cricket as never before in this century, while England are well placed to take advantage, save in one respect: they cannot fit three pace bowlers and two specialist spinners into their side.

India's great batting dynasty has gone, their strike bowler is on his last legs, and most of their players are either on the way up or down. Almost all of England's Test players are on the plateau of the prime production years, although whether they are good enough to win a Test series in Asia will be the issue of the next two months.

Complacency is another part of India's vulnerability that England's 17-man party may detect on landing in Mumbai tomorrow.

Since that most curious afternoon in March 2006, when several Indian players decided the best way to draw the third Test was to slog Shaun Udal as high as they could, India have lost only two Tests at home, both against South Africa. A comforting record, disguising the loss of their last eight Tests abroad.

England's disintegration against India's spinners - all out for 80 - in their World Twenty20 match in Colombo last month has served to encourage this complacency, although it was far from their Test line-up. India's players and public have been lulled into thinking their main Test series at home this winter will be the one against Australia after Christmas.

Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan are their principal players in decline, not least in the field, after forming the spine for the last decade. If Tendulkar, in his 40th year and the only player still around who made his Test debut in the 1980s, has one last series left in him, then it will be on the slow pitches of his native land; but he will have to improve a lot on his recent form to achieve that.

Any opening batsman could have an unproductive time in the Champions League on fresh early-season pitches in South Africa, so Tendulkar's aggregate of 52 runs in five innings over the last fortnight is not statistically significant. What matters is the number of times he is being clean-bowled by seam bowlers upon whom he would have breakfasted in his youth. In his last three Test innings, Tendulkar has been beaten and bowled by fast-medium seamers from New Zealand for scores between 18

and 28.

In South Africa this month Tendulkar has continued to have his stumps knocked over, owing partly to a field setting that England might borrow. A man at short and very straight mid-on has not only blocked the drive but made him play squarer on the legside, increasing the chances of his being bowled.

But the shrewdest batting mind, at least since Bradman, will give Tendulkar every chance of one last taste of success.

Sehwag, on the other hand, has not been giving himself much of a chance of a last hurrah. No opening batsman has been more destructive than Sehwag at his peak, no one quicker to demoralise bowlers, because he hit in the air so hard, so far and so often. But he is making little concession to his age of 34, playing the same ultra-high-risk game, and skying lamely.

Sehwag has not reached 70 in a Test match for two years. His opening partner Gautam Gambhir has passed 70 once in the best part of two years, and not scored a hundred since he helped himself in Bangladesh in January 2010. And it is not as if India's opening pair are making big runs in any other form of cricket, like the four-day Ranji Trophy; they have just been hitting out and getting out in Twenty20.

The biggest indication of a crisis in this once-brilliant pair was that Gambhir gave an interview last week, saying he and Sehwag should open against England. Top Indian players don't do interviews voluntarily unless they are in trouble and need public support.

To hit India's ailing batsmen at the outset, England seem to have already inked Steve Finn into their starting XI. Sehwag smacking one up in the air, Gambhir failing to get over the bounce of a ball outside off-stump, Tendulkar to be beaten and bowled; if Finn bowls as he did in the one-day series in India last year, he could well set India on a slippery slope.

India's up-and-coming batsmen are also susceptible to extra pace. Rahul Dravid's place has been taken by Cheteshwar Pujara, a hawk-eyed right-hander who has already played some high-pressure innings in his five Tests, but he does hook in the air.

VVS Laxman's replacement, Virat Kohli, looks even better, the potential wonder of the age, but he scores mostly off-side and was caught gloving a bouncer down leg-side in the World Twenty20. And whichever left-hander bats at No?6, Yuvraj Singh or Suresh Raina, both are notorious for their vulnerability against the short ball.

Hitting India hard with three quicks - James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Finn - is therefore the obvious way for England to go. Except that Ahmedabad, the first Test venue, has been the slowest of all the tediously slow Test pitches in India, and little artifice will be required by its groundsmen to draw England's teeth, and to allow Sehwag and Tendulkar to rehabilitate.

So this series could go wonderfully well for England, or horribly wrong: three useless quicks on a very low, slow, turner, Monty Panesar omitted, Graeme Swann over-bowled, Samit Patel unable to check the flow with his part-timers, huge scoreboard pressure. Then India's spinners set to work, Ravi Ashwin spinning it both ways, Pragyan Ojha the steadiest of left-armers, Nick Compton and Jonathan Trott bogged down, and Alastair Cook getting out in a valiant attempt to lead from the front, so that all depends on Kevin Pietersen.

What could be more absorbing than this four-Test series set to start on Nov 15? Only a five-Test one.

ENGLAND'S LAST FIVE TEST

SERIES IN INDIA

2008-09 Two-match series.

Captain Kevin Pietersen. Lost 1-0

2005-06 Three-match series. Captain Andrew Flintoff

Drawn 1-1

2001-02 Three-match series. Captain Nasser Hussain. Lost 1-0

1992-93 Three-match series. Captain Graham Gooch Lost 3-0

1984-85 Three-match series. Captain David Gower. Won 2-1

ENGLAND'S ITINERARY IN INDIA

Oct 30-Nov 1 India A, Mumbai

Nov 3-5 Mumbai A

Nov 8-11 TBC

Nov 15-19 1st Test, Ahmedabad

Nov 23-27 2nd Test, Mumbai

Dec 5-9 3rd Test, Kolkata

Dec 13-17 4th Test, Nagpur

Dec 20 1st T20, Pune

Dec 22 2nd T20, Mumbai

Dec 23 Depart India

Jan 2 Return to India for five ODIs

 




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