Some years ago, in the commentary box, Nasser Hussain asked Sourav Ganguly, “When can I see India in the FIFA World Cup?” The former England captain was mocking the Blue Tigers’ inability to compete at the highest level of football. Ganguly, a football junkie, hit back: “If India had played football for 50 years, then we would have qualified for the final at least once.” An awkward silence followed.
Till the 1990s, an India-England series was never a big draw. But the two former national captains lit a fire that day, igniting a new rivalry.
When India won the NatWest Trophy in 2002, Ganguly famously took his shirt off on the Lord’s balcony in celebration, making a mockery of the staid, sterile conduct expected at the home of cricket. Since then, India-England tournaments have never been about crumpets and tea.
On the tour of England — three Twenty20 Internationals, three One-Day Internationals and five Tests — the Indian side will be looking for practice at the venue of the 2019 World Cup. For England, it’s a chance to establish its credentials as the best ODI team in the world — and the favourite to win the title next year.
The current England squad is undoubtedly one of the best in many years. The young battalion — much like its football counterpart — is sharp, fit and possessed. The cricket the side plays is like a trance party. It requires a heady high to score 481 in a 50-over match. The English carnival began with a 4-1 drubbing of Australia followed by a 3-2 win over New Zealand — playing away both times — and included the 5-0 whitewash of the Aussies on home turf. In all of these victories, the batting was the highlight of the England side. Every batsman, from the openers down to Moeen Ali at No.7, has the ability to change gears.
For one thing, it’s hard to believe that Jonny Bairstow scored his maiden ODI century just 10 months ago. He added five since then. The Yorkshire bloke has paired with Jason Roy in 17 innings to hammer 1,100 runs in the space of one year. Bairstow’s quick-fire centuries (off 58 balls against New Zealand and 54 against Scotland) escalated his craftsmanship.
Jos Buttler has the Indian Premier League instilled in his heart. He carried his IPL form to the national side, scoring 91 not out, 54 not out, 110 not out and 61 against Australia.
And all-rounder Ben Stokes can bloom any moment.
For India, skipper Virat Kohli, despite past failures in England, will be the main talking point. As the leader of the side, he will be expected to tackle the fickle English weather better this time around. But K. L. Rahul, touring England for the first time with the seniors, could be the batsman to look at. The right-hander was phenomenal in this year’s IPL, where he plundered 659 runs with six fifties at an average of 54.91.
Missing Rahane and acclimatisation
Former India batsman Dilip Vengsarkar, one of the most prolific run-getters in England during his time, feels Kohli’s side needed Ajinkya Rahane to bolster the middle order.
"I am really surprised [at Rahane’s exclusion]. It is a 50-over game and somebody has to stay around for a long time. Rahane was the right person to hold the middle order. It is unfortunate,” he said. For the record, Rahane’s overseas performances stand out among his peers.
Vengsarkar, remembered for his match-winning knocks of 126 not out at Lord’s and 102 not out at Headingley in 1986, said adjusting to the condition will be key. “How quickly they adapt to English conditions is important. I am glad that they will be playing the One-Day Internationals first. There will be enough matches before they head to the Test matches. They will get used to it. We have world-class players who can adapt,” he added.
World Cup winner Madan Lal seconded Vengsarkar. “When you travel, it is important to do well in those conditions and earn an opportunity to play for India regularly. This is their chance,” he said.
Bowlers and flat wickets
For a long time, England was the only destination that offered neutral wickets. But today, 300 is the new 250, and the carnage at Nottingham as England scored 481 exposed the meek nature of the wickets.
Out-of-favour speedster Varun Aaron, who spent more than a month in the English county for Leicestershire, revealed the challenges of bowling on flat wickets. “The guys (in international cricket) are scoring 400 as if it is a joke. In the Royal One-Day Cup (the domestic tournament in England), 300 is an average score, and you still might not win,” he said after returning to India.
Aaron was a part of the squad that toured in 2014 and he believes the flat-wicket syndrome could also be a double-edged sword for India. “It will favour our batsmen. It will give India a great chance to win the series,” he added. Nonetheless, the ODIs will be a challenge for Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and — if fit — Jasprit Bumrah. But wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, who claimed 13 wickets together in the T20Is against Ireland, will be the surprise element.
For England, the bowling department could be a worry. While Liam Plunkett is handy and experienced and David Willey knows the art of swing bowling, Jake Ball is young and playable. But the spin of Ali, Adil Rashid and Joe Root could turn heads.
If the English team is trance, the Indians are out to rock. With the team flaunting game-changers like Rahul, Manish Pandey and Hardik Pandya, there is more than enough juice in Kohli’s cellar. It all depends on the cocktails he makes with their combinations.
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