Mumbai: England's cricketers start their preparations for what promises to be a grueling Test series against India by taking on India A in a three-day warm-up game here from Tuesday. Led by opener Alastair Cook, who made a fine debut in India with a half century and an unbeaten century to boot at Nagpur in March 2006, the Englishmen have arrived with a mission to become the first team from their shores to defeat India in a Test rubber since David Gower's 1984-85 tourists.
England have won a few Tests on the Indian soil, notably in Cook's debut series when Indian batsmen crumbled against the spin of long-forgotten Shaun Udal and the pace of James Anderson and Andrew Flintoff, but have never clutched the Test rubber in hand while departing. England are coming off a 0-2 series loss to South Africa that also took away their top ranking in Tests. Now they face a determined-looking India, who are waiting to avenge the humiliating 4-0 whitewash sustained last year in England.
That the visitors had practiced extensively for three days in Dubai against their own spin bowlers Graeme Swann, Monty Panesar and Samit Patel at the ICC Global Cricket Academy is a clear sign of what they expect would be the biggest hurdle here. However, the home team, in the warm-up game led by Test middle order aspirant Suresh Raina, does not have any spin bowlers to boast of, viewed as a deliberate ploy to deprive the visiting batsmen any practice against slow bowling.
Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina could be in a face-off for the No. 6 spot in India's Test team.
The return of Kevin Pietersen as the 17th additional member after his recent patch-up with teammates would be another interesting piece of the puzzle. The patch-up came after weeks of peace talks that followed his unceremonious ouster for off-field happenings despite scoring a hundred midway through the Test rubber against South Africa at home. How quickly and well the lanky batsman, who had scored a classy hundred on his last Test visit to India in 2008, gels with his teammates in alien conditions would be watched with a lot of interest by the host country's Test team members, some of who are in India 'A' squad.
While the rest of the squad had come from England via Dubai, Pietersen arrived separately last night from South Africa where he was playing for IPL franchise Delhi Daredevils in the Champions League T20. Pietersen will need to quickly get into the Test mode from the slam-bang of T20s. The retirement of former skipper Andrew Strauss has also come as a headache for England as they are still searching for a suitable opening partner for Cook in the short time they have got ahead of the opening Test at Ahmedabad from November 15.
Rookie opener Nick Compton, grandson of former England great Dennis who had played in the Ranji Trophy championship in India but never came on a Test tour, is one option for the visiting team. The match would also be the first chance for the much-touted England pace attack to get used to the slow pace and low bounce of Indian pitches. The spin trio of Swann, Panesar and Patel, on the other hand, would be licking their lips in anticipation. From the home side's point of view, the match is a very important one to sort out one or two batting slots in the Test team, if not immediately but in the near future.
There are three players vying for the reserve opener's slot -- Murali Vijay, Abhinav Mukund and Ajinkya Rahane -- the last-named being part of the Test squad as the third opener behind regulars Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Yesterday, India A coach Lalchand Rajput hinted after the team's practice that Rahane could bat at no. 3. "I think Rahane likes to bat at number 3. Normally team management and the coach take a call but it's a new selection committee. We will wait and see," said Rajput, a clear hint that India Test discards Mukund and Vijay could open.
The match could also be a direct contest for the vacant no. 6 slot between incumbent Raina and comeback man Yuvraj Singh, who is coming into the game on the back of a double hundred for North Zone in the Duleep Trophy. Also in the running for middle order slots are Manoj Tiwary, Ambati Rayudu, a late replacement for Shikhar Dhawan who sat out of the match as it clashed with his wedding, Ashok Meneria and Robin Bist, from Rajasthan.
With no regular spinners in the India A ranks, the medium pacers will have a long work haul which would be to their benefit, according to Rajput, on a wicket which may assist the pacers in the initial stages of the game. "It's a good wicket. At CCI, always the first session helps the bowlers. It's one of those wickets which will have some carry in the first session. It's a typical Mumbai wicket, there will be a little bit of bounce," said Rajput
"I don't know what the selectors have in mind. I would look at it from the point of view of the medium pacers. It's a good opportunity for them. Normally, if you have two spinners, medium pacers don't take much part in the game because after the new ball, they are dead because of the turning wickets."
The rival teams (from):
India 'A': Suresh Raina (Captain), Murali Vijay, Ambati Rayudu, Ajinkya Rahane, Yuvraj Singh, Manoj Tiwary, Wriddhiman Saha (Wk), Irfan Pathan, R Vinay Kumar, Parvinder Awana, Ashok Dinda, Robin Bist, Ashok Menaria and Abhinav Mukund
England: Alastair Cook, James Anderson, Jonny Bairstow, Ian Bell, Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad, Nick Compton, Steven Finn, Graham Onions, Eoin Morgan, Monty Panesar, Samit Patel, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, Joe Root, Graeme Swann, Jonathan Trott.