What’s India hoping to achieve?

India’s tour of England seems strangely charmless not because of a dearth of dreams, but an apparent lack of purpose, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

There is to India’s Test squad to England a peculiar familiarity. It pertains to the middle-order. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, and V. V. S. Laxman, when in England five years back, would have fancied their chances of making this trip. They have, but it hasn’t been straightforward.

It was expected then that India, through a golden age of batting, would begin to challenge Australia’s supremacy; no more would the bullies-at-home-wimps-abroad tag be so glibly applied. India then held Australia to a 1-1 draw over four Tests in Australia, dominating passages of play, giving further credence to the theory that it might well be India’s decade. Those were heady days primarily because of the promise they offered. Watching a team being wrought is captivating.

It’s both easy and rewarding to identify with a quest — and India’s quest to become a strong, wholesome team on foreign soil held all the allure of an unfinished chapter. It’s this allure that is missing this time around. Curiously, it’s not because the dream has been realised — India isn’t yet a world-beater abroad. Often, the realisation of a dream, the completion of a chapter is cruel, for there is nothing left. India’s tour of England seems strangely charmless not because of a dearth of dreams, but an apparent lack of purpose.

It would appear that there is nothing worrying in saying these are currently India’s four best middle-order batsmen, even if they are all getting on in age. Two of them — Dravid and Tendulkar — are already part of the all-time greats; no one who has played as many defining innings as Laxman has been treated with such apathy — he hasn’t always helped himself, but special talents must be spared from callousness; Ganguly, despite his weaknesses as a pure batsman, has a fighting spirit about him that has helped with his being a very good Test batsman. Indeed, the key to winning in England is their recapturing the form of 2002.

But, that precisely is it. Can they? Of these four, only Dravid has maintained a rigorous excellence over the past five years (4633 runs from 49 Tests at 65.25) in varying conditions. Injuries, decay, poor management, and resistance to change have led to Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly being below their best. It doesn’t bode well that young batsmen aren’t pushing hard enough for spots. The administrators didn’t cover themselves in glory when they had a chance for renewal after the World Cup.

And what does it mean for Indian cricket if Dravid’s men do indeed win the series? Is it a sign that India is going forward? What of the seniors? How long will they continue and how will it benefit India? Is there a succession plan? What will India do after the magnificent Anil Kumble retires? There is little evidence that India’s cricket administration has considered these questions with the depth of thought they require; certainly, the administration hasn’t publicly addressed them with any degree of acuity.

Fortunately, Test cricket has a certain swaying power. It allows immersion in the immediate: once immersed in its momentum shifts, its plot twists, its layered narratives, the big picture doesn’t seem as compelling anymore. And England affords such diversity of conditions that the minutiae are even more engaging. Take for instance the fact that India is playing in the second part of England’s season, traditionally its drier part. In 1990, conditions were so dry, hosepipe bans had been enforced. The Indian and English batsmen made 15 centuries between them.

But, the run-up to this July in England has reportedly been miserably wet. Water tables have risen, and evidence shows that high water tables correlate positively with movement off the seam. If it continues being overcast, there will be generous swing. Yet, through the series against the West Indies, played in the wet first half of the season when the faster bowlers rejoice, left-arm spinner Monty Panesar managed wickets. It was no surprise that he scalped a fair number with his drifting arm ball; as legendary West Indies off-spinner Lance Gibbs pointed out, lush outfields preserve the ball’s sheen, helping the bowling of drifters.

The other thing to look out for is the amount of reverse swing available: in the 2005 Ashes, English bowlers swung it conventionally early, and after the ball had been scarred over the rough wicket-squares, swung it reverse. Reverse swing enhances the quality of play for settled batsmen can’t slip into a comfort zone. And the advent of reverse swing affects other dynamics such as the timing of the second new ball.

This could be the series that establishes Sreesanth as a bankable option for success abroad. His presentation of seam and ability to hit disturbing lengths at pace fetched him wickets in South Africa. He has the capacity — and this can’t be coached — to lift his game against the top batsmen. His bouts with the equally combative Kevin Pietersen could be the defining contests of the series.

Sreesanth is part of an inexperienced pace attack. Zaheer Khan is the senior pro and his experience in county cricket, when he was orchestrating his comeback, must be shared with the rest. They have in Venkatesh Prasad a capable bowling coach. Prasad has excelled in England; his wards can only benefit from the distillation of his thoughts. A third seamer will have to be picked from R. P. Singh, Ishant Sharma, and Ranadeb Bose. Often in Tests abroad, India’s new-ball bowlers make incisions. Then, the third seamer comes on, and the momentum is surrendered.

R. P. Singh, Sharma and Bose offer different qualities. Sharma is untested, but at 6 ft 4 in, he comes at a different angle from the rest. Bose’s record at the domestic level (194 wickets from 54 games) is remarkable for he bowls in unhelpful conditions. But, to even it out, the quality in domestic cricket has long lost its relevance as a standard to judge on. R. P. Singh can be excellent on his best days; he swings it both ways, he cuts it, and gains lift. He is therefore difficult to line up. However, the consistency of his action isn’t beyond question, nor, consequently, is the consistency of his performance.

Sourav Ganguly (above), Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Venkat Sai Laxman were on the last tour of England too, in 2002.-K. Bhagya Prakash

India’s fast-medium bowlers will need to get their act together for they are up against just the kind of batting line up that troubles them: a left-handed opener who understands thoroughly his game in Alastair Cook; a classical stroke-maker at three who can take a game away in Michael Vaughan; in Paul Collingwood, Pietersen, and Ian Bell, evolving batsmen, one of who is a game-breaker; an aggressive batsman-wicketkeeper who drives and pulls well in Matt Prior.

The addition of left-armer Ryan Sidebottom has given England’s bowling variety and consistency. Steve Harmison showed ominous signs towards the end of the series against the West Indies. Matthew Hoggard’s combination of elbow grease and swing troubled India in India — reasonable expectation then that he’ll be a handful at home. It will help India that Andrew Flintoff, whose left ankle was operated on in June, could miss the first two Tests at least. Apart from being England’s talisman, even if a boat-rocking one at that, Flintoff allows Vaughan to play the extra bowler.

Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik will be tested, and much will hinge on how they cope. This will also be a tour of importance for M. S. Dhoni. Young, confident wicketkeepers — Kamran Akmal, Denesh Ramdin — have turned grasping, grabbing wrecks with the gloves in England.

Above all, it will be a contest between the two captains. Vaughan is building towards the 2009 Ashes. Things are slotting in place, there’s a discernible purpose. The youth of the English side, as Ian Chappell pointed out, leaves it best poised to threaten an Australia without Warne and McGrath. It is in this regard that Dravid is hamstrung. Barring Karthik, Dhoni and the young bowlers, he has with him men in descent, their peaks lofty and glorious, but behind them.

THE ITINERARY

Tour Match: England Lions v Indians at Chelmsford, July 13-15, 2007

1st Test: England v India at Lord’s, July 19-23, 2007

2nd Test: England v India at Nottingham, July 27-31, 2007

Tour Match: Indians v Sri Lanka ‘A’ at Leicester, Aug. 3-5, 2007

3rd Test: England v India at The Oval, Aug. 9-13, 2007