The past few weeks have been fantastic for Test cricket. Bangladesh notched a famous first-ever win over England, West Indies upstaged Pakistan against all odds and South Africa appear to have turned the tables on Australia after a disastrous first innings at Perth.
Vicissitudes of form and fortune — apart from skills of players — makes cricket’s longest format intriguing and magical: beyond compare — within the sport itself, or any other. Which is why Test cricket needs to be succoured, however, monumental the challenges.
I must confess to having had to chomp on my feet through the last fortnight after making the wrong prediction in all the instances mentioned above. But that did not reduce the pleasure of watching these Test matches: in fact it has whetted my appetite even more.
India’s series against England, starting next Wednesday, is the blockbuster I am looking forward to with great anticipation though — chastened by how things have gone in recent weeks — I am chary of joining the chorus that Virat Kohli and Co will whip Alastair Cook & Co.
On paper, this seems reasonable. England are without main strike bowler James Anderson, and their spinners don’t compare with India’s. The batting seems heavily dependent on Cook and Joe Root, and let’s not forget that England come here after suffering defeat while India have been in red hot form.
Moreover, the two most outstanding players in the world on current form are with the home team: Virat Kohli and R. Ashwin. Their dazzling, form in recent series’s finds near consensus among experts that they are the best in the business in their respective department.
India’s record in recent years at home is intimidating too. New Zealand Zealand were whitewashed recently, and last year only rain saved South Africa from similar humiliation. In 2013 Australia received a 04 drubbing from which they’ve not quite recovered.
Yet, I am skeptical about the belief that England will be complete pushovers. That would be reading too much into their defeat against Bangladesh and too little into how they’ve been performing in the past couple of years.
Going by results, England have been arguably the most resilient side playing anywhere. A clutch of young players — talented and deeply ambitious — have emerged. They can surprise India if enough homework on them has not been done.
Ben Stokes, for instance, has developed into a terrific, match-winning all-rounder. His ability to reverse swing the old ball would be a threat even on turning tracks. I see him as a key factor in how this the series develops. India have some problems too, largely caused by injuries to stellar batsmen. Rohit, Dhawan, K.L. Rahul are all out for one reason or the other. This allows veteran Gambhir the opportunity to reestablish himself, but nevertheless unsteadies a steady batting unit.
Greater responsibility devolves, therefore, on Kohli, Rahane, Pujara and Vijay. All have been in splendid form this year, but it remains to be seen of a rejigged line-up shackles the freedom and flair with which they have been batting.
Too much, in my opinion, has been made of the conditions that England will encounter here.
True, the pitches will help spinners, but this doesn’t discount fast bowlers entirely. In 2012-13, Anderson was a handful for India’s batsmen, and even if Australia lost 0-3 to Sri Lanka recently, Starc took a bagful of wicket on spiteful turners. How to play on spinning tracks is a challenge every country touring the sub-continent has to prepare itself for — technically and temperamentally. But this applies equally to both sides. India’s batting hasn’t been extraordinarily good against quality slow bowling either.
Those with very short memories may not remember that Swann and Panesar spun England to a 2-1 series win in 2012-13. The problem then was that India dropped their guard after winning the first Test, assuming victory was guaranteed. Kohli and Co would ignore that lesson at their own peril....