Ahead of the four-Tests series starting November 15 in Ahmedabad, a look at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of and to the England team led by Alastair Cook.
Strengths: England's biggest strength is their middle order which comprises of Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell. Trott is an obdurate batsman capable of occupying the crease for long hours. He puts immense value on his wicket and did extremely well for England when they toured Sri Lanka earlier this year. He struck a wonderful century in the second innings of the first Test at Galle, and followed up with another in the second Test. The 31-year-old has improved his skills against spinners, and scored an unbeaten 101 in England's tour match against Haryana. He might prove a tough customer to dislodge on imminently flat decks.
Pietersen is the best batsmen against spinners in England's side and the dashing batsman would like to put behind the 'text messages' saga to mark a thumping return to international cricket. He blasted a century against Haryana as well to send warning signals to the Indian dressing room. He averages 40.55 in 5 Test matches in India, with his previous appearance in the country producing a century. Pietersen’s form could be the decisive factor of the series.
Bell has an abysmal record in India – an average of 20.00 in five Tests - but he's an improved batsman since then. He flayed the Indian bowlers last year in England, though playing on Indian wickets will be a different proposition and the onus will be on Bell to exhibit his class against spin.
Alastair Cook has proved himself as an influential captain in the shorter version of the game, someone who leads from the front. He was a completely transformed limited-overs batsman when he became the captain of England's ODI side last year, and this is the first series in which he would serve as England's permanent captain in Test matches. He has fond memories of India as he smashed his maiden Test ton in India on Test debut at Nagpur when England toured in 2006.
Matt Prior has grown immensely as a wicketkeeper and batsman in the last couple of years. He has shown skill in handling spin with grit and will hold England's lower middle order together.
England's pace bowling attack look formidable on paper, but injury issues might be the fly in the ointment. Steven Finn looks set to miss the first Test as he hasn't recovered from the thigh strain which he suffered in England's first tour match against India A. Stuart Broad also missed the third warm-up game with a bruised heel, and though he will play in the first Test, it is yet to be seen whether he would be able to bowl at full tilt.
James Anderson is the fulcrum of their pace attack, and a lot will depend on how he performs in the series. Graeme Swann is one of the best spinners in the world today, and he must be rubbing his hands in glee at the news of the BCCI dishing out rank turners. Swann is eminently effective against left-handers, and it'll be a challenge for Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh to counter this canny and crafty spinner.
Weaknesses: The obvious point is their ineptitude to play top-flight spinners. This has been their Achilles heel for many years now, and England’s record in the subcontinent is a ringing testimony to this. Pietersen, Cook and Prior are their best bet against spin, but Pietersen's vulnerability against left-arm spinners is well-documented. Yuvraj got the better of him on several occasions when England toured India in 2008. Pragyan Ojha and Yuvraj will leave no stone unturned to topple England's premier batsman.
Bell's record in subcontinent is mediocre, to put it mildly. He was like a cat on hot bricks against Saeed Ajmal, when England were whitewashed by Pakistan in three-Test series in the UAE. Eoin Morgan, Jonny Bairstow and Samit Patel – England’s second-highest run-getter on tour - will jostle for the No. 6 spot, and each have demons to exorcise. Morgan, like Bell, was found out by Pakistan’s spinners earlier this year. Bairstow has yet to play a Test in the subcontinent and it will be a Herculean task for him to come good in alien conditions. Patel is desperately trying to prove himself as a Test cricketer.
This is England's first Test series after Andrew Strauss' retirement so the opening slot is up for the grabs. Nick Compton seems to have pipped Joe Root for this place. Both of them are yet to play a Test yet. It’s a tall order as an inexperienced opening partnership to lay the foundation for rest of the batsmen to consolidate. Root and Compton could take a leaf out of their captain Cook, who started his career with a century in India.
As mentioned above, England's pace attack looks potent on paper but injuries to Finn and Broad could attenuate their zip. If either of the bowlers could not attain their 100% fitness, or ruled out of the series, it'll be a lethal jolt for the visiting side. Also, barring Swann, their spin attack, comprising Patel and Monty Panesar, doesn't have thesting to unsettle Indian batsmen who are supremely adroit in playing spinners. Panesar did well against Pakistan in UAE, but struggled in Sri Lanka. If he could find a way to be consistent, he could be of some help for England. His arm-ball is deceptive and skids through. Patel is a decent limited-overs bowler, but is devoid of variations required to excel at Test level.
Opportunities: There are various factors on which England would like to capitalize. To start with, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir are under the scanner. They have not been in form since last two years, and their place in the side is being questioned. Gambhir is short of confidence which could be seen in the way he pokes at deliveries outside off stump, and while Sehwag scored a century in his last first-class match against Uttar Pradesh, he has done nothing of note in Test cricket. Sehwag is erratic and goes for his shots irrespective of situation, and this is where England could clamp down on him.
Like India’s openers, Sachin Tendulkar has also been struggling in Tests over the last year. He was bowled three times against New Zealand and there was a flaming brouhaha about his reflexes getting slow, and critics calling for his head. There will be immense pressure on Tendulkar and he's aware that this series could be his swansong if he fails to regain his form. There are many things playing on his mind, and England could use it to their advantage by exerting more pressure on him.
India's pace attack looks a tad toothless. Zaheer Khan's fitness is a huge concern for India, and it is unlikely that he will survive the whole series. Due to a lack of fitness, Zaheer might not be able to bowl to his full potential and this will give an opportunity to England openers to lay a solid foundation for their team. Zaheer is brilliant against left-hand batsmen and could have made life difficult for Cook, had be been at the peak of his fitness and form.
The other Indian fast bowlers don't paint a spectacular picture. Ishant Sharma is yet to establish himself as a dependable fast bowler, even after playing 45 Test. Umesh Yadav is an emerging, young fast bower and though he's talented and capable of generating good pace, he was inconsistent against New Zealand in the last Test series.
Threats: England’s biggest challenge will be to overcome their ineptitude against spinners. India have three spinners in their ranks - Ashwin, Ojha and Harbhajan Singh. Ashwin and Ojha captured 31 wickets between them in two Tests against New Zealand to orchestrate a series triumph. Harbhajan played his last Test almost a year ago and he could be handy against an opponent that is fragile against the turning ball, and on the pitches which assist spin tremendously. India might opt to play three spinners in their playing XI, give their pace attack is substandard. It'll take enormous dexterity and determination on England's part to keep India’s tweakers at bay.
Virat Kohli is in the form of his life, and has emerged as the cornerstone of India's batting. He has plundered runs in all formats of the game this year, and was chosen ICC ODI Cricketer of the Year in 2012. He's adept against fast bowlers, as well as against spinners. England’s bowlers' biggest task will be to knock him over. Though Sehwag is out of form, England cannot afford to take him lightly. He's one batsman who could be absolutely devastating on his day. Sehwag is conversant with Indian conditions, and has shown tremendous desire to get back to the form.
Cheteshwar Pujara is gradually cementing his reputation as a solid, dependable batsman. He made a remarkable comeback to international cricket, after an ankle surgery, in the Test series against New Zealand. He exhibited creditable temperament and technique, and more than that, an appetite for runs.