A tale of two captains

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Rahul Dravid and Michael Vaughan carry the burden of the achievements of Sourav Ganguly and Nasser Hussain, who deflected their teams away from the path of dreaded results while playing in the regions their countrymen loathed the most, writes N. U. Abilash.

The wires in the minds of Michael Vaughan and Rahul Dravid would be whirling as they go out for the toss at Nagpur, the venue of the first Test of a best of three series. They, like other top sporting performers entering the time and space of action, are master electricians who have arranged the wires in a manner that prevents short circuits in the form of the diversionary past and the future.

However, just as a batsman approaching a hundred casts a furtive glance through the corner of the eye at the scoreboard and fleetingly imagines the what-may-be, one suspects that Vaughan and Dravid — who are famous for the structured and methodical manner in which they approach life and profession — may mount Time Machine for a second before the series and cast a look at their places in history as leaders. Both carry the burden of the achievements of the two men from whom they took over — Nasser Hussain and Sourav Ganguly deflected their teams away from the path of imagined (and dreaded) results while playing in the regions their countrymen loathed the most, the Subcontinent in the case of England and anywhere but the region in the case of India.

After the losses in Sri Lanka (2003-04) and Pakistan (earlier this season), Vaughan is perilously close to an unthreatening tour of India, which would be a big relapse into the less recent cricket history of England, which was reversed by Hussain in 2001 and 2002 with series wins in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and the best of two drawn Tests in a 1-0 loss in India.

Dravid might be in the comfort zone going into the home series, but he is sure to realise that the battle against formidable England, even if it is in `home, sweet home', is the only serious reality check before the Indian team ahead of tough challenges in South Africa (2006-07), England (2007) and Australia (2007-08). Dravid's predecessor had done well to draw in England and Australia, and a cricket-crazy country would expect the man from Bangalore to be in a much better situation than what Vaughan is in currently while going into the Australian tour of 2007-08.

On the Indian side, few major tactical variables can be expected in the series. It is likely to be a team playing to its strengths and the opponent's weakness: two world-class spinners will be unleashed either on slow, flat tracks where little early movement is available and which will take slow or big turn and variable bounce as the match progresses or on a completely under-prepared pitch just as the Wankhede Stadium one in Mumbai against the Australians in 2004-05.

It is certain that the Sourav Ganguly factor, irrespective of his inclusion or exclusion, will be the talking point in the days leading up to the first Test and during the series. The former captain's two decent knocks in the disastrous Karachi Test, where only Yuvraj Singh scored more runs than him, will dominate discussions. So will coach Greg Chappell's recent statement that players have to adhere to a 10-point checklist to fit into the future of Indian cricket.

"It (inclusion in the Indian team) has less to do with the runs made and wickets taken. It has to do with having everything that makes up the individual who blends into a group that can be a successful team," said the coach in a recent interview. The identity of Virender Sehwag's opening partner is another variable in the Indian camp and it has a connection with the larger one concerning Ganguly.

Coach Duncan Fletcher, the architect of `New England', first with Hussain and now Vaughan, has a different policy about the issue of talented individuals fitting into a group.

In his autobiography `Playing with Fire', Hussain explains the process adopted by him and endorsed by Fletcher: "The big thing for us was not to drop someone because of a perceived character flaw. You pick your best performers on the basis of runs and wickets and sort out any problems there might be with them."

The England team management and players also do not share Chappell's recent views that a bowling coach is unnecessary. After giving Troy Cooley his fair share of praise following the Ashes victory, Fletcher and Vaughan have expressed their satisfaction that the ECB have found Kevin Shine as Cooley's replacement.

England's `difference' will extend to on-field tactics and strengths as well. Former skipper Michael Atherton suggested in `The Daily Telegraph' that the last team to beat India in India other than the mighty Australians was Hansie Cronje's South Africans in a two-Test series in 2000, and they did it by playing four pacemen. Mathew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff shared the new ball in 2001 and bowled long spells with seven-two off-side fields designed to curb the free strokeplay of the Indian batsmen.

Flintoff was also asked then to dig it in hard, aiming at the ribs of Tendulkar and Ganguly. The return of Simon Jones means that Flintoff gets his reverse swing partner, whom he missed badly in Pakistan.

Flintoff and Jones have other strengths such as conventional swing, consistently hitting the speed gun at 90mph, and pronounced seam movement. Flintoff has a decent slower ball, which can be useful on the Subcontinent. He can also be the key in the switch between attack and defence on account of his workmanlike quality to bowl wicket to wicket.

The English batting, without Mark Butcher, Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain who starred in 2001 on the Subcontinent, has been found wanting in Pakistan. Runs will be expected heavily from vice-captain Marcus Trescothick and Vaughan, who was dismissed in a strange manner — handled the ball — in the last Test match he played in these shores.

Andrew Strauss has been declared his bunny by Shane Warne, and is considered vulnerable against all forms of good spin bowling. The same is the case for Ian Bell. Showboy Kevin Pietersen, who now nearly looks like a skinhead after shedding his skunk hairstyle, scored a hundred in Pakistan but could manage only 100 more runs in five other innings. Andrew Flintoff will have to fit into the batting shoes of Craig White in 2001, which demands more patience and greater emphasis on hitting straight on slow wickets against the spinners.

Flintoff, who recently said that he was mentally and physically not prepared for the Pakistan tour owing to the post-Ashes euphoria and the meaningless trip to Australia for the ICC Super Series, might miss the third Test in Mumbai to be with his wife, who is expecting their second child. But, he could well give the Indians a fright in Nagpur and Mohali no matter what the nature of the pitch is.

Old timers, who relished the personal battles between Ian Botham and Kapil Dev in the early 1980s, are licking their lips in anticipation of a similar all-round rivalry. Andrew Flintoff versus Irfan Pathan sounds just right for the marketing men as well.