The battle of India

Winning on the sub-continent requires a durable character and steady cohesion as well as all your cricket skills, writes Ted Corbett as England begins a four-Test series against India.

By the end of a tour of India an England cricketer knows he has been in a fight. Conditions have improved enormously over the last 30 years with five-star hotels and a greater variety of food even for the fussiest North West European.

My first tour of India — and only my third as a cricket correspondent — was the famous trip in which David Gower was captain and we had to endure every tribulation save all-out war and famine. That 1984-5 party was the last England team to win a Test series in India and believe me it was a battle from start to finish.

We had hardly left the plane — I was so excited at the prospect of a tour of India that I arrived a day early — before Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated and in trying to report the earth-shattering event I was pursued by a crowd of wild men who suspected I might be CIA. I had to run for the waiting car, handing off one bold attacker as I tried to mimic my days as a Rugby three quarter 25 years earlier. Stones and clods of earth flew round my ears. My sports editor rang — I could hear him but he could not hear me — to demand “more of the same tomorrow” as if such drama could be ordered on room service. Later Denis Law, the Scotland and Manchester United star, asked after my health which improved my morale no end.

Soon after came the explosion in Bhopal and the first dramatic paragraph of a newspaper story I thought might cause revolution to follow. I cannot repeat its robust words; but even 18 years later, it perfectly fits the troubles that arise when Western business money meets Third World poverty.

Finally, a few hours after we had been his guests, Percy Norris, the genial deputy High Commissioner, was murdered on the streets of Mumbai but by then we were accustomed to danger and stayed in place to watch another form of murder in the first Test as England were destroyed by a young leg-spinner and an old — too old — umpire.

I still wonder who pulled the trigger that early morning but Mr. Norris’s death has been swept under the carpet and not even that bold Mumbai tabloid has been able to reveal the details.

Mrs. Gandhi’s death had forced us to run to Sri Lanka until the riots died down but thereafter we took everything in our stride — defeat, cricket, the dry heat and chaos, particularly travel chaos — and absorbed every moment of our eventually triumphant trip.

I trust that Alastair Cook’s men will have fewer problems. Despite all you will have heard, about the rows over Kevin Pietersen and the retirement of Andrew Strauss and seen on the glum faces of the national selector Geoff Miller and the coach Andy Flower, they are a force.

We do not know yet who will open with Cook but Denis Compton’s grandson Nick is fit to lace the great man’s boots and may rise to heights beyond his own estimation.

The next three — Jonathon Trott, Pietersen and Ian Bell — are that nasty mix of solid defence and ambush attack that ought to produce huge scores and no doubt in four Tests they will achieve that target more than once.

You will ask how Cook will come through the ordeal as captain. He looks soft and wan and lacking toughness. Do not, whatever else you do, underestimate this young man. He plays for Essex where they are taught everything there is to know about the subtle bits of cricket but first they see how to bat long, like Graham Gooch. He is now in charge of British batsmanship just as Churchill used to be in command of courage.

What Gooch does not know about India, its conditions and the techniques needed to deal with their pitches and their pitfalls, is not worth knowing and when you see him, pottering around the pavilion as if he had a million worries, you should know he will be solving a concern or two and thinking, always thinking, how England might win.

England’s bowling is good enough, particularly now India have lost Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman. Graeme Swann, Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson, Tim Bresnan and the rest will account for most Test sides, given a touch of help and, by the way, when the going gets tough, Matt Prior is the man you need.

His physical fitness, his chatter, his encouragement and the hours of training under Bruce French — an also-ran in the Gower side but one who thoroughly enjoyed his visit to India — have turned him into a considerable Test wicket-keeper. After his bad times England began to leave him out of the one-day stuff but I guess that may change and give him the chance to show India what a powerful batsman he can be at any stage of the game.

He has a sensible deputy in Jonny Bairstow, praised recently for his solid reaction to sudden fame and backed by men, like Gooch, who understand what it takes to be a winner.

So England are fit and ready and able to win the first series in India since that Gower tour but long before the end of this tour — which is split in half by a pause for Christmas at home — they will be reminded that a visit to India is a battle from beginning to end.

Winning on the sub-continent requires a durable character and steady cohesion as well as all your cricket skills.