/ 5 August 2011

Powerhouse England to test India’s mettle

As England edges ever closer to the Test match summit, India is facing an abyss. Their hold on the number-one ranking is tenuous and will come loose if they win neither of the two remaining Tests.

Bragging rights would remain in Indian hands when it comes to one-day international cricket (although, curiously, their World Cup win has ensured that they now drop to third in those particular rankings, which somehow seems nonsense) but, in the case of two such overwhelming wins by England, it is clear, rankings or no rankings, where the balance of power will lie in the Test match arena.

Quite simply, England is inspirational, one of the very best teams for decades, while India is a collection of individuals, some of them giants of the game, but lacking the obvious cohesion and sense of purpose of their opponents.

England have shown their capacity to fight their way out of a corner on more than one occasion during the past few years, while India, as a team, look bereft of a spirit that can overcome adversity.

Rahul Dravid has been exceptional (a video of his Trent Bridge century should be a compulsory part of the education of any aspiring batsman) and VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar have shown flashes of the craft that has made the Indian middle order one of the most revered the game has seen. But there are flaws in the team. The Test match talent pool looks to be a shallow one.

The absence of Virender Sehwag cannot be compensated for fully, but it would be expected that an opener with any pretensions should be able to cope with the short ball better than Abhinav Mukund did.

He might have left Nottingham with a king pair had Tim Bresnan at second slip for Jimmy Anderson not stuck a mitt out at the wrong moment. This was Bresnan bowling, for goodness sake, not Tommo, Marshall or Ambrose.

Too many hopes are being pinned on the potential return of Zaheer Khan. He can be a superb bowler, but at Lord’s he got what might have been inevitable, given his obvious lack of fitness and match practice. His replacement, Sreesanth, is an endearing eccentric and a clever bowler at times, but he is no real replacement.

When the best Indian pace bowler in the series so far is someone who sends it down slower than England’s leading female seamer, Kathy Brunt, there are questions to be asked.

The manner in which England were able to adapt their length in the Indian second innings and make more use of the short ball is something not available to India, a point that will not be lost on Duncan Fletcher for whom Praveen Kumar, for all his skill at swinging the ball (and he has been a delight to watch), would not get close to any international side over which he has more than cursory control.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is right to point out that many of his team, in effect, are now in the middle of a seven-Test series being played over a nine-week period. For that, blame the Indian board, which sanctions their contribution to the future tours programme.

However, that does not excuse the lackadaisical manner in which they prepared for the first Test, something which allowed England to sprint out of the blocks at Lord’s and then stretch the lead in Nottingham.

Injuries have been unfortunate and, to an extent, that will be rectified by the time the teams meet at Edgbaston a week from today.

The arrival of Sehwag is widely anticipated (by England as well, who want to compete against the best), but whether he is able to play the remaining two Tests or will wait for the one-day international series is another matter.

He is, however, one of those fortunate players for whom match practice appears to be largely irrelevant. With the return of Gautam Gambhir the batting at least would be at full strength.

Yet, for all that, England would still have the edge, for their bowling has a greater cutting edge as well as offering the depth in the order with the bat. England possess the strongest pool of quality pace bowlers in the world and were not as inconvenienced by the injury to Chris Tremlett as could have been expected, given the success of Tim Bresnan.

However, they do not need to be too hasty. Pitches at Edgbaston have been variable, the new drainage system making it a difficult moisture balance to maintain. There is also the possible effect of the massive new stand that replaces the old pavilion. Warwickshire bowlers say that it does not appear to have affected the way the ball behaves, as is the case with the new stands at Trent Bridge, but England need to see for themselves in practice. At least England have the option of Chris Tremlett though it looks as if there will be bounce but no swing, or Bresnan, if swing is a prospect.

It would be surprising if Jonathan Trott were not fit, while the continuing influence of Graeme Swann is vitally important, even if Monty Panesar is a high-class, Test-proven replacement should his bruised hand not recover.

Neither Swann nor Harbhajan Singh have had memorable games with the ball in this series, but beyond that, Swann is crucial to the ecology of close catching.

He is a remarkably adept catcher at second slip, for which there is no ready replacement of similar quality. England, for all their brilliance elsewhere, have missed too many chances so far for comfort. —