India are looking for that period of warmth, redemption after the last whitewash, for they have seen how bleak the winter that can follow is.
Duncan Fletcher and MS Dhoni have a tough task ahead of themselves. (Getty Images)
“What’s the score?” “One more gone?” [Laughter]
On January 17, 2012, India should have been playing tough Test cricket on the hard surface of the WACA Ground in Perth. They were not. Having been rolled over inside three days – their seventh successive overseas Test defeat – India rested on what would have been the fourth, trained on the fifth, and were back in the hotel by the time England’s Test against Pakistan began in faraway Dubai.
The cricket was either not on TV or the players were going through their team exercises – gym and pool sessions, individual and team meetings etc. A few journalists were working in the team hotel’s foyer. Every few minutes a player would pop out to ask for the score in Dubai, and be informed of another fallen wicket as England went from 31 for 1 to 43 for 5 to 94 for 7 and eventually 192 all out on the first day. There was visible pleasure on their faces. From little things big things grow.
Five days later, during India’s next press conference in Australia, came their first cry for turning pitches when England and Australia would tour later in the year. Such moments were the lowest point of India’s miserable run away from home.
Why are we still talking of the dark days during a lovely start to the English summer with days long and birds atwitter?
Because England matters. Of late England have been a bogey team for India in Tests. They have won three of the last five Tests that India have lost at home, they began the process of unravelling the strong Indian side in 2011, and three each of the five most successful batsmen and bowlers against India since 2011 have been Englishmen. Players of the 2011 Indian team must still be going to shrinks to deal with the recurring nightmares of long days in the field when nothing happened with the ball only for it to become unplayable when they batted.
In the recent past, more often than not, India have had to do with schadenfreude when it comes to England. Now that they are back in England, India have been provided ingredients for more schadenfreude. Around the time they were getting measured for final alterations on their tour blazers, the India players would have heard of the meltdown the England captain Alastair Cook had while responding to Shane Warne’s criticism of his “boring” and “defensive” captaincy. By the time they were sipping their first Earl Greys or India Pale Ales, England had lost a home Test series to Sri Lanka.
No laughter this time, though. Not in public at least. Instead of turning the screw through some kind of mental disintegration, India have chosen to stay low key, which is usually their way unless they are rattled or the inimitable Virender Sehwag is at press conferences. The first signs point to a calm team quietly hopeful and confident. They know this is a good chance for a young group, which came awfully close to winning Tests in South Africa and New Zealand, to finally put one, and then more, on the board.
That confidence must arise from a promising batting line-up as much as it does from England’s disintegration. The hosts are in disarray, similar to what India went through when England toured India in 2012-13. Like then with India, the ruthless whitewash in Australia has claimed careers, and has left the hosts vulnerable. Consequently India’s batting is more stable than England’s, less likely to play weak shots to get out as they showed in their two previous trips, although they are bound to be less familiar with the conditions. However, they also know that Sri Lanka’s attack had the England batting in trouble in both Tests; India’s bowling is not exactly worse than Sri Lanka’s. There is cause for optimism, but there is no way India are considering themselves favourites.
This whole tour is a vast unknown for India. Most of them have played, and done well in, ODI cricket in England, but only three – MS Dhoni, Ishant Sharma and Gautam Gambhir – of the 18-member squadhave played a Test here. Only four – M Vijay being the other – have tasted Test success away from home. India last won an away Test just before going to England in 2011. None of them has ever played a five-Test series, though questions over longevity are being asked of England too, what with Sri Lanka proving stubborn, pitches good for batting, and seven Tests to be played in the summer. India’s stock bowler, their workhorse, and also their most experienced one, boasts one of the worst records for any bowler who has lasted 50 Tests. Their captain has had tactics questioned, and has been labelled defensive, more often than his counterpart.
With the unknown comes the beauty of possibility. It’s almost a clean slate for a majority of this team. If they see an England partnership developing, they are less likely to think, “Here we go again.” The Indian newcomers of today aren’t the newcomers of the ’90s and before. They are confident, combative, aware, privileged with the best of facilities and finances, and do not build pressure on themselves by putting a tour on a pedestal.
And within that unknown, the India players are pretty certain of their roles, which will not change much from what they were in South Africa and New Zealand. Vijay will look to fight at the top with the discipline he scarcely gets credit for, Shikhar Dhawan will try to impose himself; Cheteshwar Pujara will play his usual game while Virat Kohli will look to take it to the opposition if he manages to get in; Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane will have to get runs with the lower-middle and lower order.
Bowling has always been India’s worry, and will continue to be. This is where India can be hurt. This is the first time in a long time they have embarked on a big tour without their de facto bowling captain, Zaheer Khan, who would have been fit midway during the series. Picking someone not fit right then and there is a mistake they were not going to repeat after 2011. Over the last two trips, the bowlers have inspired to an extent and against the odds; now they will need to make it a bit of a norm. They can’t afford for the intensity to drop in – at 42 days from start to finish – the most compressed five-Test series England has ever hosted.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar will try to do what Praveen Kumar did on the last trip: swing the ball, either way, and look for edges. Mohammed Shami will be the impact man, looking to bowl fast and get seam movement. India will look to use him in short, sharp bursts. Ishant will have to do the donkey’s work when the shine on the ball has worn off. Rangana Herath’s success in the first part of the summer might just have tipped the scales in favour of Ravindra Jadeja to start ahead of R Ashwin. India haven’t looked shy of experimenting with an extra bowler, but there is time to go before Stuart Binny is handed his Test cap.
The most important role – though he won’t admit it and invite extra pressure – will be that of the captain Dhoni. He has won all there is to win in limited-overs cricket, but the last two Test tours to England and Australia have to rankle. Try as he might to keep the idea of legacy from clouding his current state of mind, the competitor in him will want to correct this record. More so because there were instances on both tours when India let Test matches drift in the field, something that can be pinned as much on the captain as on the bowlers. He has a younger and more athletic bunch in the field, which he has always sought, but they are also poorer in the slips. To manage with these bowling resources, not in limited-overs cricket with finite possibilities, but over a gruelling five-Test series with all its infiniteness, will be a stern test of Dhoni’s captaincy.
Here in England, headlines and billboards are calling this series England’s Indian Summer. Some of their players might have, to borrow from The Doors’ Indian Summer, loved India the best, “better than all the rest”, but it is India who are looking for that late period of warmth, a bit of redemption after the last whitewash. They don’t want Anderson and Broad, and Bell and Cook to love them better than the rest. They need their own Indian Summer, for they have known how bleak and full of agony the winter that can follow is.