Much has been said about India's tour of England. I've always wondered if we've been victims of the in-house TVCs of the channels who've won the telecast rights or the TOI hype preceeding every tour the Indian cricket team embarks upon.So how good in this team, and how well are they equipped to stand up to the english onslaught on home turf?
This Indian team like most teams that have travelled to the sacrosant home of Cricket is as good as it gets on paper. But are they only so good on paper? Have they struck the right balance between experience and youth? Experience of english conditions is imperative for a side thats looking to achieve its first series win in england since 1986. I've followed cricket since 1991 and during this period, the men in blue have travelled twice to England(excluding the '99 Wc and the '04 ICC trophy). The observations I've made are on the basis of these tours.
In 1996 I remember Azar leading the team under the most controversial of circumstances.The team selection seemed to defy logic and common sense.Besides "Nepotism" seemed to be the operative word. The press cried hoarse about 5 karnataka lads who had been picked by the the selection committee led by G.Vishwanath. The three bowlers in Kumble, Srinath and Prasad were easily the best bowlers then. But also in the squad were a few rookies, Dravid and Joshi(of karnataka), Paras Mhambrey, Vikram Rathore and Saurav Ganguly. Also the spin department was heavily loaded with Kumble,Raju,Hirwani and Joshi, while the three seamers Srinath,Prasad and Mhambrey, with the latter two making their debuts,were all new to english conditions.Also the ones who missed out on the team did have their share of supporters- Manoj Prabhakar, Vinod Kambli and Salil Ankola.It looked like India had lost the series even before their flight departed the Indian shores.
India did lose the series 0-1. But the team did have their moments to cheer about. Firstly, Sachin Tendulkar, the 23 year old deputy played with a responsibility that defied his age in years. In what remains one of the best innings he's ever played, desipte the fact that it was one to a losing cause, his 122 in Edgbaston is one of the best "How to bat" guides for all budding batsmen. Srinath and Prasad established themselves as a potent opening pair of fast bowlers. Dravid's and Ganguly's exploits on debut along with Sachins 177 in Trentbridge prompted Tony Greig to say "1973 was probably one of the worst years for english cricket. It was the year Sachin,Saurav and Rahul were born."
Under Captain Courageous Mr Ganguly, the men in blue had a more memorable outing in 2002. Having just won the Natwest Trophy, the team sported positive vibes that probably concealed problems that were similar to what their counterparts in 1996 faced like a largely inexperienced bowling attack and make shift openers.The story lines were somewhat similar.The three bastions of the Indian middle order formed a fort on the foundation of which the team put up huge scores on the board. Also Shewag and Bangar, although make shift openers, did enjoy considerable success and the highly motivated Anil Kumble was desperate to make amends for the forgettable 1996 tour. It showed on the 1-1 scoreline.
That brings us to the present team. It still has Sachin, Rahul, Saurav and Anil in their ranks and it still depends on these four who are experiencing the autumn of their respective careers. Much will depend on how these four lead the rest. Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik play a very crucial role of the openers. And Jaffer has always been guilty of playing away from the body. That would make him very vulnerable to falling for the bait that Hoggard and co present him. Dhoni is going thro a lean patch, both as a keeper and as a batsman. In England, the flaws in a keepers technique are easily exposed and Akmal and Ramadhin will surely bear testimony to that fact.One can expect Dhoni to be subjected to some pressure.
The conditions are going to suit the seamers,but a young fast bowler on his first english tour has often been troubled by the slope in the wicket at Lords. While bowling up the hill can easily wear you down, bowling downhill on the contrary can affect your accuracy. Here's where the bowling coach has a big role to play along with the captain. He needs to identify specific roles for every bowler based on their strengths.And the most experienced pro, Anil Kumble will be expected to use his repertoire very judiciously on pitches that offer little assistance to his brand of spin bowling.
The English team is currently enjoying a high under Michael Vaughan. Injuries to Harmison, Jones and Flintoff notwithstanding, the English side will still have an edge over the visitors. Indian batsmen will still find Hoggard and Sidebottom quite a handful. I expect England to win the series 1-0 or 2-1, if weather permits a result in every game.
This now brings me to the best Indian XI ever to play in England. To mark the 75th anniversary of Indian Cricket, a panel of experts did come out with their list. I'll reserve my criticism of their choice for another entry. Here's my list:
B S Chandrashekar
12th man: Ekanath Solkar
reserves: Chetan Sharma, Anil Kumble and Md Azharuddin.
If a reader finds that the selection has been unfair, let me remind you this based on performances in England.