England will offer stern test to Virat Kohli's India

It’s advantage India in the heat and dust of the sub-continent, but do not count the Englishmen out. Having played two Tests in similar conditions, against a combative Bangladesh, England will have a fair idea of what to expect in India.

Virat Kohli and his men will be eyeing the series against England with optimism. However, England, under Alastair Cook, should be India’s most challenging opponent during the long home season.   -  AFP

England achieved a monumental, against-the-odds Test series triumph when it toured India under Alastair Cook in 2012. Astonishingly, on spinner-friendly surfaces, Cook’s men found the right answers to vexing questions. India, until that point, had not lost a Test series at home after going down to Australia 2-1 in 2004.

READ: >Cook: A quiet accumulator

A victory of mammoth proportions it was for England, as it breached the Indian citadel, termed by the legendary Steve Waugh as the ‘Final Frontier.’ And England achieved it with a blend of technical expertise, old-fashioned resilience and bursts of brilliant match-winning cricket.

 

Skipper Cook displayed the right methods and innings-building skills at the top of the order; Jonathan Trott was resolute in the middle order, and the gifted Kevin Pietersen conjured some epic moments with the willow.

Jimmy Anderson struck telling blows with the new ball and then reverse swung the old ball. And that lovely off-spinner, Graeme Swann, with his flight, dip and turn, combined wonderfully with the much quicker but accurate left-arm spin of Monty Panesar.

The Indian batsmen were at the receiving end. Gradually, stress mounted on the host. Eventually, India was beaten in its own game, on tracks that assisted spin.

Yet, following that debacle in 2012, India has been undefeated and a largely winning side in series at home. Can Cook and his men pull off a heist again in the upcoming campaign?

England will be without many of its game changers from the previous tour of India. The volatile Pietersen, out of favour with the team management, will be missing in action. Trott has retired from international cricket since. Swann has bid adieu to the game, while Panesar has gone off the boil and out of the selectors’ radar. Worse, England will be without its injured pace bowling spearhead, Anderson. He will surely miss the first Test, beginning on November 9. Anderson will be added to the squad subsequently only if the selectors are convinced about his match fitness.

England could still be dangerous — it should be India’s most challenging opponent during the long home season — but the team surely lacks the depth and the completeness of the team of 2012.

Virat Kohli and his men will be eyeing the series with optimism.

 

The England batting line-up wears a rather unsettled look. In 2012, Cook had a doughty opening partner in Nick Compton, who consumed precious time at the wicket and prevented early inroads.

Ben Duckett has struggled in Bangladesh as Cook’s partner and the other opener in the side, the 19-year-old Haseeb Hamid, is untested on the international stage. With crease-tied Gary Ballance not among runs, much of England’s top and middle order appears to rely too much on Cook and the run-hungry Joe Root, who has rapidly grown in stature since his last trip to India in 2012.

When Mooen Ali came in to bat at No. 5 against Bangladesh in Mirpur, it did not quite send a strong message about the strength of England’s middle order. In fact, given England’s shortcomings in this area, there is a case for the aggressive, fleet-footed wicketkeeper-batsman Jos Buttler to be included as a specialist batsman in the playing XI. He could be the ‘X factor’ in the series; he could force bowlers to change game plan and lose length.

Ravichandran Ashwin’s duels with Cook and Root could be fascinating. Both batsmen employ their feet while venturing forward and can also go deep and play the ball late. Ashwin will be pivotal to the Indian plans, but wickets may not come as cheaply as they did against the disappointing Kiwi line-up.

The off-spinner is bowling to a good rhythm, which can be seen in the manner the ball is coming out of his hand. He is bowling a line outside the off-stump — but not far enough to force the batsmen to play the cut — and getting the ball to turn. The delivery with the arm and the carom ball have been rightly used as variations to his stock ball — the well-spun off-spinner. This has made Ashwin more potent against right-handers. And he is shifting his line adeptly to the southpaws. Changes in trajectory and the resultant pace have fetched him wickets of batsmen lacking patience.

Ashwin’s ability to read batsmen and situations makes him a bigger threat; he often outthinks opponents. The spinner from Chennai is on a roll these days, reaching milestones and breaking records. You cannot blame him for the sharp decline in batting standards, even on pitches encouraging spinners only moderately.

The flatter Ravindra Jadeja has been an ideal foil for Ashwin on sub-continental pitches. The left-armer does not give batsmen too much time or room, and on pitches where the ball grips, he can be a handful. A left-arm spinner is always in the business against right-handed batsmen if the wicket offers sizable turn.

Given England’s history against leg-spinners, India might be tempted to include Amit Mishra, a worthy exponent of the art, in the playing XI. Playing five bowlers is the right option given Ashwin’s rise as a genuine all-rounder and wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha’s form with the bat.

However, the second half of the batting line-up, where the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes come in, might give hope to England. While its top and middle order is wobbly, England, paradoxically, bats deep.

Wicketkeeper Bairstow is a fluent, light-footed batsman while pace bowling all-rounder Stokes is a powerful batsman with the temperament of a specialist. Stokes relishes responsibility, possesses the attributes to match his ambition and can be a game changer. Woakes, another pace bowling all-rounder, is an organised batsman. Leg-spinner Adil Rashid too can wield the bat usefully. And new boy Zafar Ansari is a left-arm spinner who has impressed many with his batting flair. There might be greater resistance from England than what we have seen from several other sides against Indian spin in recent years.

However, the English bowlers will need to prevent India from putting up big scores on the board. The Indian batting will look better when the stylish opener, K. L. Rahaul, rejoins the accomplished M. Vijay at the top. In Cheteshwar Pujara, skipper Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, India has a seemingly healthy middle order for the conditions.

But then, the English seamers can exploit some early assistance from the pitch and pacemen such as Stokes and Woakes are good with reverse swing. Not to forget the lanky Stuart Broad and Steve Finn, who bring with them natural lift because of their bowling action. Of course, if Anderson regains fitness and joins the squad, he will provide a new dimension to the English attack. Picking the right pacemen from the mix will be a challenge for the tour selectors.

What about the English spin attack? Off-spinner Moeen is an improved bowler, but clearly not in the same league as Swann. The experienced Gareth Batty has his limitations as an offie. Rashid is a steady, if not a threatening, leg-spinner. And Ansari is still learning his craft as a left-armer.

Yet, the present bunch of Indian batsmen, bred on flat tracks and lacking in footwork on occasions, has had problems against spinners on surfaces conducive to spin. England’s best chance is to build pressure through consistency, deny runs and force mistakes. England has to be disciplined with its cricket, hold all catches that come its way and keep believing in itself.

While much of the focus will be on Indian spinners, swing bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar, if fit, could nick a few with his controlled movement at an improved pace.

The DRS, to be used in the series, could also change the dynamics of the matches. Here, England might have an advantage because it is more familiar with the system, where the key is to rely on cricketing sense and not emotions while asking for a review. A wasted review is an opportunity lost. A winning review not only gets the umpire’s verdict overturned but also gives the side another shot at a decision. Matches have changed dramatically following these moments. Using DRS successfully is a tactical game in itself, one that India must quickly learn.

It’s advantage India in the heat and dust of the sub-continent, but do not count the Englishmen out. Having played two Tests in similar conditions against a combative host in Bangladesh, England will have a fair idea of what to expect in India.