Ready for the challenge

England skipper Alastair Cook with Kevin Pietersen. Talking of KP’s return, Cook said, “for me as a captain the best possible outcome has happened.”-AP

England, which has always believed the Ashes was the stage to prove and excel on, is keen to make the series against India count more than anything else, writes Vijay Lokapally.

Seafood laid them low in Madras. In Calcutta it was the smog. No excuses for the loss in Bombay. It was a drubbing that left England in deep introspection. India achieved all three Test victories in 1992-93 by huge margins. In 1984-85 England emerged 2-1 winner but it has not won a series in India since that eventful tour.

England captain Alastair Cook commented on the eve of the tour, “We have a real, tough challenge ahead of us as a side. It has been almost 30 years since we won in India so that shows the challenge ahead but I am very confident in this squad that we can go out there and do something special.”

Winning in India, current England team member Matt Prior, believes, is “the final frontier”. It was quite different in days gone by when the Englishmen would complain of everything in sight, from the weather to food to accommodation, not to forget the poverty and squalor. Cricket happened as the tour progressed.

David Gower wrote in his autobiography, “If you lose the first Test in India, and they don’t want you to get back into the series, there is precious little you can do about it. Five-and-a-half-hour days, flat pitches, slow over rates...” True to some extent then but not anymore because India would love to erase the ignominy of its 0-4 annihilation the last time the two teams met in England.

There was an interesting anecdote that Ian Botham narrated from his 1981-82 tour. He wrote, “Off the field this Indian tour was a wonderful, and, at times, very humbling experience. The size of the crowds that greeted us wherever we went was incredible; thousands of people set up camp outside our hotels, yet all they wanted was a glimpse of us. One family travelled for two days in their horse and cart just to hand me a garland of flowers and take a souvenir photograph.”

How times have changed. England, which has always believed the Ashes was the stage to prove and excel on, is keen to make the series against India count more than anything else. This time around, Duncan Fletcher is not in the English camp. In 2006, he said about a hotel in Nagpur, “Ï have never stayed in a worse establishment.” Hopefully, Fletcher, now the India coach, would not have such complaints this time.

The sub-continent did not attract the Englishmen for many reasons. Food and accommodation was the common woe until selector Ted Dexter felt it was the “smog” that hurt England’s chances in 1992-93. But India is the cricket destination for all now. The curry attracts the Englishmen like never before and the five-star comfort is a welcome change from the earlier times. Cricket too has changed. India will not enjoy the services of Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman anymore, both having retired, but there is not much that England can boast of in terms of experience of the sub-continent.

Cook, Kevin Pietersen, James Anderson, Ian Bell, Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann are the surviving members of the team that came to India in 2008-09. Andrew Strauss, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Paul Collingwood added depth to the squad then and England will have a tough time making up for their absence.

Cook, who made a century on his Test debut in Nagpur in 2006, observed, “It has been a difficult two months for us as an England side (losing 0-2 to South Africa at home) but for me as a captain the best possible outcome has happened. We have got a world-class player back in our team (Pietersen).”

The Pietersen episode, the batsman criticising his own team-mates, caused much controversy but an apology from the dashing batsman led the way to his comeback into the team. His presence will remain crucial to the squad.

Even as Cook welcomed Pietersen back into the squad, former skipper Strauss struck a note of caution. “If everyone is happy in the dressing room they will play well. But if it’s not resolved then it is a problem. If they can make it work, then obviously England will be a better side with KP in it because he’s an outstanding player. But if, behind the scenes, things are difficult and resentment is harboured and, if KP is not fully committed to England, there are going to be problems. But it’s in everyone’s interests to make it work.”

England’s problems begin at the top with two uncapped players, Joe Root and Nick Compton, preparing to open the innings. The option of Jonathan Trott coming up the order also lies with the team management, where coach Andy Flower has enough experience of the sub-continent.

India has no such problems really. A settled squad promises to bring the crowds back to Test centres. True, M. S. Dhoni would feel the pressure but he can rely on veterans like Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag even though the onus would be on the young brigade led by Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli to help improve India’s ranking from the fifth spot. England is ranked second behind South Africa.

Looking to snare the Englishmen in the web of spin, India would be falling back on its age-old trick.

The relevance of good cricket would be lost on doctored pitches but the Indian camp is determined to exploit the home advantage. How far they succeed would be worth following.