Only twice since the turn of the century have India gone into the final Test of a home series seeking victory to level the contest. Only twice since January 1, 2000, have India lost a Test series at home. That is an exemplary record, spanning 23 series and 62 matches, and one which showed how tough teams found it to beat India at home. But that aura of near invincibility that India prided itself on for so long stands to be dashed by a dominant England going into the fourth and final Test in Nagpur starting Thursday.
Before the series started in Ahmedabad, few could have envisaged a scoreline of 2-1 in England's favour heading into the final fixture. But such has been the tenacity and indefatigability of Alastair Cook, whose 538 runs in three Tests have been one of the major differences between the teams, and the determination of other key players to change England's record in India that the hosts have been left by the wayside, stunned and in disarray.
India's problems are well documented. Lack of runs from major batsmen – Cook has more than Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, MS Dhoni and the axed Yuvraj Singh combined – and the ineffectiveness of pace and spin; some poor catching and worse fielding; uninspiring captaincy and poor field placings; a sheer lack of belief in what this team can do.
After the series was levelled in Mumbai, the Indian selectors named an unchanged squad for Kolkata. After England won by seven wickets, the selectors made several changes. Out went Yuvraj, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan, in came Ravindra Jadeja, Parwinder Awana and Piyush Chawla. Changes needed to be made, deadwood needed to be discarded; domestic talents needed to be recognised. It wasn't a sweeping change, but it was significant.
Of the three new faces, it is foreseeable that Jadeja make his debut in a like-for-like swap for Yuvraj at No. 6. He is a left-hander, bowls tidy left-arm spin – he has 24 wickets at 20.91 in five Ranji Trophy matches this season – and brings into the team some much-needed athleticism. Jadeja's scores of 70 and 68 and match figures of 8 for 98 in Saurashtra’s 270-run win over Bengal on Tuesday have certainly firmed up of his chances of a Test debut.
With Zaheer gone, India's pace quotient consists of Ishant Sharma, who played in Kolkata for the first time since January and who was listless in the third Test, and the uncapped Ashok Dinda and Awana. Ishant had figures of 29-8-78-1 in England's first innings, continued to look lost as a Test bowler and his shocking drop of Cook when on 156 is hard to forget. The last time India fielded two debutants as the leaders of their attack was against England in 2001, when Tinu Yohannan and Iqbal Siddiqui paired up in Mohali. Will the management make another such radical move by picking Dinda and Awana? It would be a bold move, but considering Ishant's flatness and the need for something different, it is not entirely unthinkable.
Personnel-wise, there should not be any other changes. R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha should continue as the lead spinners, and the batting order will remain unchanged bar the inclusion of Jadeja at No. 6.
England, having ensured they cannot lose the series, are now looking firmly at their first series win in India since 1984-85. They will be fully aware of the chances of India preparing a result-oriented surface at the VCA Stadium to increase their chances of securing a draw, but considering the form of Monty Panesar, Graeme Swann and James Anderson, and the shot of pace that Steven Finn offered in Kolkata, this team will be confident of victory.
What England need are contributions from the middle order. Cook – who scored his third century of the series and the 23rd of his career to set up the win at Eden Gardens – is batting on a different level from his team-mates. Rookie opener Nick Compton has improved with every innings, Jonathan Trott got into runs in the last match and Kevin Pietersen has been an intimidating feature. But Ian Bell and Samit Patel have been patchy, and their shakiness has meant increased expectations from the wicketkeeper Matt Prior at No. 7. Patel’s bowling has also been highly ineffective, though he is expected to hold his place as the allrounder.
Regarding the conditions in Nagpur, the surface is reportedly dry and expected to assist the spinners from day two. The outfield is apparently lush and green, indicating that the seamers on both sides may struggle. The three Tests to be played at this ground have all ended in results, with the side winning the toss opting to bat on all three occasions – and twice ending up on the positive side.
India: 1 Gautam Gambhir, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Virat Kohli, 6 Ravindra Jadeja, 7 MS Dhoni (capt/wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Ishant Sharma/Parwinder Awana, 10 Ashok Dinda, 11 Pragyan Ojha
England: 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Nick Compton, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Samit Patel, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Graeme Swann, 9 Steven Finn, 10 James Anderson, 11 Monty Panesar