If avenging the four-zip defeat by a similar margin is on Team India’s mind — surely they would seek to clutch the rubber by the broadest of margins — they have considerably played it down. India would like to guarantee that they make England toil as hard as possible, but anything beyond that is an incentive.
Perhaps the reason they aren’t overwhelming favourites is that they are replenishing the void left by two of their most luminous batsmen — Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. And they haven’t got a stable number six either, since Laxman’s promotion after Sourav Ganguly’s exit. The pretenders to Ganguly haven’t quite suffused either his vintage grace or stoic spirit.
Certainly, Yuvraj Singh’s canny left-arm spin —lately he has been successful in first class matches after his recovery from cancer — would cushion him to getting the nod. But even then, England would believe the current line-up as the weakest they are to counter in a decade.
India’s openers haven’t sung in unison since 2010. Their personal form too has regressed, though Virender Sehwag’s last hundred came at this venue two years to the date. Moreover, he wasn’t all uncomfortable against New Zealand, though the intrinsic trait to gift his wicket still remains. Gambhir, meanwhile, has been floundering to the away-going delivery with habitual propensity.
As ominous are the signs of Sachin Tendulkar, in his fortieth year, and paceman Zaheer Khan, striving for the swing that made him so lethal. At 34 his body rebels, and the signs are blatantly perceptible. The young battery — Ishant and Umesh Yadav — haven’t staked their claims either.
Like their batting — wherein Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli have emanated promise — the bowling too is borne by youngsters, most significantly Ashwin and first-choice partner Pragyan Ojha. Unless the re-laid strip is a raging Bunsen, Harbhajan Singh may have to carry drinks.
Hence, the tourists find themselves in the likeable proximity of a series win in India after 28 years. They have their own pack of issues to be fixed though, like their much-harried cold feet against spinners, a debutant opener thrown to the unknown travails of the sub-continent, a fast-bowling unit stabbed by injuries early in the tour and most pertinently as to their best-possible eleven. County-weathered Nicky Compton is the likeliest to debut while Tim Bresnan is the likeliest to displace the injured Steven Finn (thigh strain), lest not they be tempted by the prospect of including the resurgent Monty Panesar. But, Samit Patel’s all-round ability — he notched up a hundred in the warm-up match — should secure his spot in the eleven.
Thus, England have more or less zeroed in on their first-eleven for the first Test with Graeme Swann bracing to garb the enforcer role as their best spinner to tour the sub-continent since Derek Underwood, who masterminded the 1977 series win. Many reckon their spin-attack superior to India’s and hence dishing out spinner-friendly wickets could boomerang. But they would know better the fate of John Emburey and Phil Tufnell, the onerous ask of subjugating batsmen with dexterous wrists, breastfed on spin.
And they would even better know that India didn’t necessarily require the amenities of mystery spinners to befuddle English batsmen. How well their batsmen — the axis of Cook-Trott-Bell-Kevin Pietersen looks daunting on paper — counter the spinners would be the binding narrative of the series. For they require not only expertise but also infinite patience.