This is a series with historical and contextual import, India smarting to avenge the drubbing in England and reintegrate their cricketing superpower image at large, further dented by their abject humiliation in Australia and England bidding to exorcise the ghosts of Pakistan and South Africa behind them.
Both are rebuilding following the retirement of some key players; England their inspirational skipper and opener Andrew Strauss, who forged the disparate pieces into a concerted bunch and India the bulwarks —Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman - who made India’s the most vaunted middle order of the decade, if not among the best ever. Only the centre-piece remains, and he himself is under colossal compression to deliver (Sachin Tendulkar’s last hundred came in January 2011 in South Africa).
The commonality of problems makes the four-Test series between India and England even more fascinating. If England are to field in a debutant opener — Nick Compton the likely candidate — India’s pair Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, incidentally their most successful-ever, is treading a poor patch, individually and collectively. They have not scored a Test century in the last two years, and haven’t posted a 100-plus partnership in that period.
While there is enough experience to suggest stability, India’s batting order isn’t as strong as it used to be for a major part of the last decade. Cheteshwar Pujara looked composed in his limited international career, but the quality of England’s bowling attack could be a staunch test of not only his temperament but also his character. Virat Kohli has been their most trusted batsman in all the formats but would he cope up with the team’s burgeoning dependency on him? Yuvraj Singh has impressed in his international comeback, but the dynamics of Tests would be no less intimidating than his triumph over Cancer. Ajinkya Rahane would sense his debut at some point of the series, but irrespective of the scenario he can’t hope for a hassle-free initiation.
But more than the batting, India would be worried over their bowling. Their main pacer Zaheer Khan’s powers are on the wane, and this in all likelihood could be his last full-fledged series against England. Youngsters haven’t risen to shoulder the responsibilities either. Ishant Sharma, despite having featured in 45 Tests, is still erratic while Umesh Yadav is finding his bearings in Tests. The onus, thus, is on spinners — the triumvirate of R Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Harbhajan Singh — to wrestle back the rubber for India.
The tracks are likely to assist spinners, though not as alarmingly as in drier climes. And at least on paper, England have a quality spin duo of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, with Samit Patel bracing for a look-in. But still, pace bowling is their main weapon, and the likes of James Anderson, Steven Finn and Stuart Broad would pose Indian batsmen more queries than Swann and Panesar. The only two times England won a series in India in the past 80 years provide constructive lessons (in 1977, John Lever and Bob Willis took 46 wickets and eight years later Neil Foster took 14 wickets from two Tests). Australia and South Africa, too, would attest.
But for England to harbour any realistic ambition of emerging with their pride intact, their batsmen ought to tame the Indian spinners. Kevin Pietersen apart, England’s middle-order hasn’t quite been amongst the runs. Pietersen would doubtlessly be their counter-puncher, but it also depends on which KP turns up — the joker or the winner.