A testing time!

India can surely draw inspiration from the cricketers across the Palk Strait. Sri Lanka proved against England that all pre-series predictions can be torn asunder as long as there is self-belief and the right cricketers, who perform during crises. It is India’s turn now, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

India last played a full-fledged five-match Test series way back in 2002. The venue and the opposition were the West Indies and India lost the series 1-2. After that, the longer version jousts were restricted to series involving three or four Tests and at times just two. Now, as M. S. Dhoni’s men embark upon their tour to England that finally features five Tests, the challenges staring at the team are manifold.

A young team that is still coping with the thrills and woes of transition, but used to the merry biff in limited overs cricket, has to buckle down and cope with the rigours of Tests and that too five at a stretch. Dhoni himself admitted ahead of the tour game at Leicester: “After a long time we are playing a five-Test series. So it will be something new for us.”

The tour is not just about young turks embellishing their nascent stature, it is also about enhancing Dhoni’s legacy as a Test captain. He has gained all the glories in the shorter versions — World Cup, ICC World Twenty20 and ICC Champions Trophy — but dominance in critical Test tours — Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand — has proved elusive. In the immediate past, though the squad showed spirit and a rallying force both in South Africa and in New Zealand, the respective series were lost by identical margins of 0-1.

A longer flashback actually props up more nightmares. When India last toured England in 2011, the back- story was a heady one lit up by the incandescent World Cup triumph. Seasoned men like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, V. V. S. Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan were all part of the mix and it was presumed that if ever there was a time to humble Old Blighty’s cricketers, this was it.

What followed was a ghastly implosion, the series was squandered 0-4, a verdict that found a depressing echo a few months later in Australia.

Back then in England, Zaheer limped away with a torn hamstring right on the first day of the first Test! The rest, with the exception of Dravid, who scored three hundreds, wilted against the combine of James Anderson (23 wickets) and Stuart Broad (25). To make it worse, England’s batsmen totted up hundreds — the daddy ones and the equally effective nuggets lower down the order — with Kevin Pietersen (202 & 175), Ian Bell (235 & 159), Alastair Cook (294), Eoin Morgan (104) and Matt Prior (103 n.o.) relishing the wares dished out by the hapless Indian attack.

But it’s not all gloom and doom now. The immediate context is one of India refusing to be overwhelmed, be it in South Africa or in New Zealand though the two series were lost due to an inability to snatch the tipping-point moments. The young batting line-up — Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane — has shown that it does have tenacity to go along with talent.

However, it is premature to place them alongside Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sourav Ganguly.

It does help that Gambhir is back in the squad. The opener, who lost his way after forming an indomitable alliance atop the batting tree with Sehwag, must be keen to get back to those roaring days though his senior partner has been left to prosper in domestic cricket and in the Indian Premier League. The tour would also be interesting to find out whether Kohli’s prolific run remains intact because in the IPL, he did not dominate games like the way he usually does for the Royal Challengers Bangalore.

The bowling meanwhile has to cope with the absence of its past masters — Zaheer (due to injury) and Harbhajan (due to a gradual reduction in his effectiveness). Yet, men like Ishant Sharma and R. Ashwin haven’t yet fully written their names into the ‘lead bowlers’ club’ especially when the team crosses the seas.

Ishant has the talent and Ashwin is a young man, who introspects deeply and tries to add new guiles to his bag of tricks. It must be galling for the off-spinner that in recent times, Dhoni has tended to prefer Ravindra Jadeja overseas.

The fast bowling crop of Ishant, Varun Aaron, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami, Ishwar Pandey, Pankaj Singh and Stuart Binny, will have to adjust to the swing-and-seam friendly conditions in England. And without mentor Zaheer around, they have to use their thinking caps more.

Surely, a young team, without the weight of expectations that usually trailed when men like Tendulkar did duty, can play a brand of fearless cricket and hopefully surprise Cook’s men. Mind you, England is in a vulnerable state too after losing 0-1 in the recent Test series against Sri Lanka. Besides, the Ashes debacle still hurts the host. Pietersen’s forced exit has raised many unanswered questions and Jonathan Trott is still coping with the dark shadows of depression.

India can surely draw inspiration from the cricketers across the Palk Strait. Sri Lanka proved that all pre-series predictions can be torn asunder as long as there is self-belief and the right cricketers, who perform during crises. It is India’s turn now.