Trying to arrest their fall from top of the Test rankings, the colonial cousins brace up for a crackerjack Diwali series, starting Nov 15.
Cricket has taken a backseat, just for a while. It's Diwali! Lights all around, the sky's lit up, the concrete's shimmering with light bulbs. Guests, wanted and unwanted, have thronged our homes. And Indian cricket too has a visitor at its doorstep, with a gift tucked under one arm. It's the England captain, Alastair Cook, saying, "Let's play".
In less than 48 hours - when the smoke of burnt crackers spares our lungs – the most anticipated of Test series going around the globe will begin. Two nations, both swearing after being dethroned as the number one Test team, will clear the sand under their feet for a head start to run each other down and climb back up the ladder of ICC rankings.
This Indian winter, the hosts want to bury the ignominy they suffered last English summer. With heads bowed and fists clenched, the Indian team stood in London on that Monday of August 22, 2011. A 4-0 whitewash had witnessed Andrew Strauss snatch the Test mace from MS Dhoni. More than the scoreline, India's meek surrender hurt sentiments. Injuries played a major role but that's not an excuse to hide behin in international sport. The reign at the top had been ended, but another body blow was still to come – in Australia.
Talk of boot camps for batsmen or crackerjack bowlers, the rebuilding Australian team smashed the battered visitors. Eight Test defeats on the trot, two consecutive 4-0 routs and stalwarts on the way out, India were staring at a monumental task to get back in the thick of Test cricket. But eyes were still on November 2012, when India could lay a trap for England at home to exact revenge.
England, however, were soon checked out of cloud nine by South Africa, who went a step ahead to beat the new No. 1 in their backyard. A 2-0 Test series win was enough for South Africa to overthrow England and become the new number one. England got a taste of their own medicine and Hashim Amla in that series. Amla's triple-century in the first Test brought England pacers down to earth. Dale Steyn & Co. sensed the opportunity and rammed into their dazed opponents.
The Test mace once again changed hands, and it was Graeme Smith's turn this time to lift it high up.
In hindsight, India would have wanted England to come here as No. 1 and leave as former No. 1. That would have added a pinch of extra sweetener to the revenge. But now the matter is between former table-toppers. On one hand are India, striving to fill the gaping holes in their batting that the exits of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman has left behind; and on the other are England, who are still searching for ways to win a Test series in the subcontinent.
India are desperate for a major Test series win, even though they have got the better of West Indies and New Zealand after their twin Test debacles. But the exodus of Dravid and Laxman, and the approaching end of Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar means India don't have any extra time available to create a winning atmosphere for youngsters like Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Umesh Yadav and R Ashwin. While a win in this series will boost their confidence, a loss – that too at home – can cause irreversible damage to their ambitions.
The series is also important for thoroughbreds Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Harbhajan – if given a chance in the XI – can safely consider it his last. A failure at homegrown snake pits will probably be the last we see of Harbhajan in Test cricket, but success may open gates for a couple more years.
For Sehwag and Gambhir, it's time to take the mantle from Dravid and Laxman as team's pillars of strength. With Rahane and Murali Vijay in the team, an ultimatum has been served to the two Delhities – that there are options available if they don't get their elbows straight.
The visitors will be chasing history to break a 27-year deadlock for their first Test series win in India since 1984-85. That, in fact, shows the enormity of the task England face. But India, of late, have lost some of the gas in their batting tank. Will England bowlers be able to exploit that or will the English jaws drop at the sight of their return gift from India this Diwali? It's anybody's guess.