India’s quest to become No. 1 in Test cricket will start in earnest on November 15 in Ahmedabad. Forget the two Tests against New Zealand; this is where India’s challenge begins. Four Tests against England, followed by four against Australia in the New Year. The buzzword may be revenge as these two teams do battle after an utterly one-sided series in England last summer, but India would be better served focusing their efforts on becoming a respectable Test team once again.
England are ranked No. 2 in Test cricket, India are fifth. Fourteen points separate the two teams. Should India win 2-0, they will be catapulted up to third place in the ICC’s Test rankings. If England beat India 3-0, they can reclaim No. 1 from South Africa.
India have a busy home season, and must iron out a few creases during this series. Failures for a few seasoned players could change the make-up of the team, and after a decade there are real spots up for grabs. For a side in the post-Dravid-and-Laxman era, these four Tests are huge. India don’t play a Test outside the country until late 2013, and so getting the nucleus of the team in order before that series must also be a priority.
Though they go into the series as favourities, India have issues. For now they will open with Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag, who have not put on a century partnership together in 20 innings. In the last two years, Sehwag has scored only one Test century and has averaged 37.26, which is way below than his career average of 50.64. Gambhir, in the same period, has an average of 30.31, when his career average is 44.35, and has gone without any centuries in Tests. Should either struggle in the first two Tests, there is a possibility that Ajinyka Rahane or Murali Vijay step in. The signal is clear to the senior opening pair with the presence of two reserve openers in the squad.
The other big concern is the formation of the fast bowling attack. Zaheer Khan is at the end of his career and not certain to last four home Tests; Umesh Yadav has shown much promise but is still erratic; and Ishant Sharma is still nowhere near a finished product despite playing 45 Tests. Two of the three will feature in the first Test, but such is the fragility of India’s pace stocks that the concern is who next?
Then there is MS Dhoni, who continues to divide opinion when once he had few detractors. India’s most recent assignment was the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, where they failed to reach the semi-finals for the third consecutive time. After a Test series win over New Zealand, it put the spotlight back on Dhoni’s captaincy, which has been under the scanner since the embarrassing washout in England. As in England and Australia, Dhoni appeared a mute spectator in Sri Lanka. He cannot afford to be so now, over four Tests against a very good Test side.
The last time England toured India, they were beaten 1-0. That team was led by Andrew Strauss, who has since retired from all formats of the game. The team is now led by Alastair Cook, who made his Test debut here in 2006 as a fresh-faced boy with a century and half-century. Today he is the leader of a side with aspirations of becoming No. 1 again, but weighed down by inconsistency in the subcontinent.
Cook is a batsman who leads by example, a hallmark that he has earned through sheer force of runs when captaining England. When he first led the Test team, in March 2010 when Strauss skipped the tour of Bangladesh, Cook batted almost seven hours for his 173, declared on 599 for 6 and avoided enforcing the follow-on after Bangladesh had been bowled out for 296. England won by 181 runs before lunch on day five. In the second Test, Cook hit a second-innings century and England won easily. Two Tests as captain, two wins for Cook.
This series obviously won’t be so easy, but England can look to Cook for inspiration. He has a century and 97 in the warm-ups and has matured into an opener of steely resolve and immense patience. Note his double-centuries in Australia and against India last summer. Cook’s challenge here will be to master the conditions; he averages 49.60 in Asia with four centuries and so is not new to the pitches and what is required. But alongside a rookie opener – the uncapped Nick Compton appears set for a debut in Ahmedabad – and without Strauss in the side, Cook’s role has increased.
For England, the batting remains an area of concern. Utterly at ease on quicker tracks at home, England’s finest have often been found wanting in more testing conditions away. Cook will be expected to shoulder an immense burden, as will Kevin Pietersen, but they will need sizable contributions from Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell to have a chance of beating India. Gting runs out of Bell – who managed just 52 runs in six Test innings against Saeed Ajmal and Adbur Rehman eight months ago – must be a priority.
Despite the interesting angle that Pragyan Ojha v Petersen promises to be, the slow-bowling spotlight will focus on R Ashwin and Graeme Swann. The two offspinners are similar in that they seem like they want to take wickets every ball, and are also extremely persistent, but Ashwin is still in the infancy of his Test career whereas Swann has played 46 Tests. Ashwin’s five Tests at home have seen him pick up 40 wickets at 18.40, while Swann’s two outings in India have realized eight victims at 39.50. Spin will dominate, of that there is little doubt, and how Ashwin and Swann fare could the decisive factor in the series outcome.
Expectations from this series may not be as high as previous visits from big-ticket teams, but there is much to be gained for both sides over the next six weeks. It’s just a matter of who takes the challenge more seriously.