India and England begin their rivalry with the first Test at Ahmedabad starting on Wednesday. MS Dhoni's men lost all of their four Tests when they toured England last year, and that will sure be at the back their minds over the course of the series. Revenge is the buzzword in India, with talk of the hosts preparing rank turners, but more than all that the focus for both India and England should be on winning whatever the odds so that both can climb up the ICC Test rankings ladder.
Since that fateful tour of England in 2011, a lot has changed in terms of India's set-up: Rahul Dravid, the man who scored three centuries on that tour, and VVS Laxman have called time on their careers. Sachin Tendulkar is nearing his end as an international cricketer and Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara have become the new poster boys of Indian cricket. Yuvraj Singh has been diagnosed with cancer and returned fighting, and with a renewed vigour towards Test cricket in particular.
Even though many believe that India go into the series as red-hot favourites, there is no denying that their task is much tougher than they had against New Zealand a couple of months ago when Pujara and Kohli led India to a 2-0 whitewash. For one, England arguably have the best bowling unit in the world. James Anderson, Stuart Broad, and Graeme Swann have taken wickets all across the world with aplomb.
By all means, it's a contest between England’s bowling and India's batting. India have reasons to worry. Tendulkar, who buttressed the Indian batting for over two decades, has been in patchy form. Even his staunchest supporter, Sunil Gavaskar, raised questions over his technique. Tendulkar too has admitted that he'll be assessing his career after the England series. Fans will hope that his stroke-filled century for Mumbai against Railways recently is a sign of things to come from Tendulkar.
Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have been poor of late and Yuvraj, who is certain to play on Wednesday, is returning to Test cricket after a tumultuous year. His double-century in the Duleep Trophy and a half-century against the England XI in a warm-up augur well, but this is Test cricket – the toughest format of the game where Yuvraj has failed to dominate in 37 appearances. The only in-form batsmen are Kohli and Pujara, but they cannot alone be expected to deal with the top-class English bowlers.
Another factor that will determine the outcome of the contest is the nature of the pitch at Motera, which traditionally favours batsmen and draws. But curator Dhiraj Parsana, a former India player, has asserted that this time the pitch will be sporting. Whatever Parsana's claims are, India would want the pitch to turn. England's record in spin-favorable conditions is really sub-standard. Over the last one year, they have lost to Pakistan (3-0 in the UAE) and drew 1-1 in Sri Lanka. There is no reason to imagine that they would have improved since the series against the Lankans in April, despite several batsmen getting runs against India A, Mumbai A and Haryana.
Apart from Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook, most of the batsmen's techniques against spin are under the scanner. Jonathan Trott improved tremendously from the UAE series when England toured Sri Lanka, scoring two Test centuries, but has yet to play a Test in India. Ian Bell is a sure run-machine when the pitch doesn’t favours spinners but his reliability quotient takes a drastic dip when it starts turning. The three candidates for the No. 6 spot - Eoin Morgan, Jonny Bairstow and Samit Patel - are also Test greenhorns. Cook’s opening partner-to-be looks like the uncapped Nick Compton, who impressed in the last two warm-ups after a dismal start to the tour, and making a debut in India against quality spin is a tough proposition.
Also, it’s not clear what English team's bowling composition will be thanks to Steven Finn being ruled out of the match on account of a thigh strain. It's highly unlikely that England will either bring Monty Panesar or Patel, of course bearing India’s excellent record against spin in mind. So, it's Tim Bresnan who may get the nod. As for India's bowling composition, Zaheer Khan and Umesh Yadav will be the new-ball bowlers with R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha taking care of the spin department.
One can say whatever about England's ability against spin, their record in India is not alarming at all. Since 1982, they have won three Tests, lost seven and drawn six. Three of those seven defeats came in 1992-93 when they were clean-swept by Mohammad Azharuddin’s team. So if one doesn't take that series into account, the gap narrows drastically between the two teams. In fact, the last two series have been very competitive: a 1-1 draw in 2004 and a 1-0 win in favour of India in 2008.
Clearly, it won't be as easy for India as many have suggested.
India: 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Gautam Gambhir 3, Chesteshwar Pujara, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Virat Kohli, 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 MS Dhoni (capt/wk), 8 Zaheer Khan, 9 Umesh Yadav, 10 R Ashwin, 11 Pragyan Ojha
England: 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Nick Compton, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Jonny Bairstow/Samit Patel, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Tim Bresnan, 10 Graeme Swann, 11 James Anderson