Fitness problems still plaguing India

Not having Virender Sehwag in the team is like losing your middle stump even before a ball has been bowled.-VIVEK BENDRE

The news from Bangalore's National Cricket Academy where Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and S. Sreesanth have been undergoing a rehabilitation stint for diverse injuries, does not have a rosy hue. Gambhir is expected to be fit but there is no certainty yet over the status of Sehwag, Zaheer and Sreesanth. The trio might buck the odds yet but the tentativeness that surrounds their limbs will test Dhoni's juggling skills as he may have to call upon other options on the tour, writes K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

A trip to cricket's birthplace always has a luminous streak. Old tales are dusted and the willow game's romance is nurtured. A tour of England attracts attention and with the venerable Wisden too focussing on the tourists, visiting players get a chance to leave an imprint on cricketing minds and in the crisp pages of voluminous books that defy age.

India's tour of England in July and August presents a challenge to M. S. Dhoni's men, who have savoured their past battles, be it winning the World Cup or clinching a Test at Kingston's Sabina Park with an enfeebled team. History points out a hoary fact. Indian cricket gained an enormous fillip in 1971 when Ajit Wadekar's men registered a 1-0 Test series triumph in England with B.S. Chandrasekhar's six for 38 at the Oval being the stuff of legend.

The journey has gained tremendous strength over the last 40 years and now when India sets foot in London, the back story is one of dominance. India is no longer the poor cousin that it was in the years pre-dating 1971 and the team nurses an aura.

The past though is never a passport to future success. It is just a feel-good filter to swap smiles, but matches still have to be won on the ground and that will test the Indians, coping with a transitory phase worsened by injury-forced omissions. Sachin Tendulkar, who opted for rest when the Indians toured the West Indies, will be back in the mix. Add to it the seasoned duo of Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman and these are men who find their best voice in moments of strife.

However, concerns remain over India's batting. The number six slot vacated by Sourav Ganguly in 2008, is yet to be cemented and men ranging from Yuvraj Singh to Suresh Raina have been tried but no one including Cheteshwar Pujara have clasped the spot with the intensity of a hungry man. The news from Bangalore's National Cricket Academy where Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and S. Sreesanth have been undergoing a rehabilitation stint for diverse injuries, does not have a rosy hue.

Zaheer Khan and S. Sreesanth may also not make the trip to England.-V. GANESAN

Gambhir is expected to be fit but there is no certainty yet over the status of Sehwag, Zaheer and Sreesanth. The trio might buck the odds yet but the tentativeness that surrounds their limbs will test Dhoni's juggling skills as he may have to call upon other options. Praveen Kumar did well at Kingston and Munaf Patel has been consistent yet Zaheer will be missed in case he fails the fitness test. In 2007 when India won the series in England 1-0, Zaheer's 18 wickets along with R. P. Singh's 12 and Anil Kumble's 14 had choked the host.

England skipper Andrew Strauss has struggled against left-arm seamers. For more proof ask Sri Lanka's Chamara Welegedara, who dismissed Strauss thrice in the recent series though in the larger scheme England secured a 1-0 triumph in the Tests against the men from the Emerald Isles. Strauss, with just 27 runs from three Tests against the Sri Lankans, is keen to get into his stride through the warm-up game between Somerset and India at Taunton from July 15 to 17. If Zaheer is around to hassle the England captain, India will gain a brownie point ahead of the four-Test series commencing at Lord's on July 21. The Indian attack will also need to find ways to get past Ian Bell, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, who scored well against the Sri Lankans.

Sehwag is also racing against time to get his shoulder in order but if he fails to recover then the onus will be on Murali Vijay and Gambhir to provide stable starts in an environment conducive to swing and seam. It will not be easy though and while Chris Tremlett's ‘let's-have-lively-pitches-against-the-Indians' comment can be dismissed as bluster it is a fact that the lanky fast bowler along with James Anderson, Stuart Broad and off-spinner Graeme Swann present an interesting challenge.

Fed on an immediate diet of limited overs excess ranging from the World Cup to the Indian Premier League, youngsters like Virat Kohli, Vijay and Raina have to quickly wear patience as their second attire beside the white flannels. Impulsive strokes can be dangerous in Tests and the way the batting copes will depend on how the support cast pick the right lessons from Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman.

This England tour can be the elevator up or the fire exit down for all the batting contenders be it a Kohli or a Subramaniam Badrinath. It will be foolhardy to always expect Harbhajan Singh to plug cracks in the scoreboard. In case Zaheer is not present, the pressure on Harbhajan as the senior bowler will only increase and the last thing he needs is a nerve-wracking stint at the batting crease. Incidentally, when India toured England in 2007, the lone Test centurion for the visitor was Anil Kumble.

Despite the odd fault-line, India has a resilience that has travelled well across the seas. And in coach Duncan Fletcher, who gifted the longest hangover to British supporters after engineering an Ashes victory in 2005, India has a man who is well aware of English conditions. A rousing series is on the anvil and if a few strong willed players emerge like the way Ganguly and Dravid arrived on the tour in 1996, Indian cricket will be well served.