Cricket is a most capricious of sports. Halfway through the summer, English cricket looked to be performing on a lucrative purple patch, enriched by the team’s adamant, if at times scrappy, performance in Sri Lanka, and followed by its comprehensive dismantling of a touring West Indies side. But we are, sadly, no longer enjoying the Olympian summer and as winter falls upon us, a rather frostier image of England’s future prospects is forming.
The jarring memory of an ascendant South Africa seizing the number one spot from England was indeed telling. It showed that England could not hold itself together against quality opposition even in their own backyard: the batting was a constant let-down while the bowling, a much vaunted cornerstone of England’s rise to superpower status in the Test cricket purview, lacked the spark and zip of a 2011 England side.
Add to this picture a perplexing melodrama off-stage involving Kevin Pietersen and the English Cricket Board. Despite scoring a century in the Headingley Test, allegations that KP had sent inflammatory text messages to South African counterparts, was enough to get him kicked out of the side for sure. The concomitant of this malaise is a real sense of uncertainty and instability within the England ranks: something we simply could not have seen at the start of the summer.
Now the same questions are being asked: can England compete against persistent, fiery opposition of the South African mould? Was their success over the last few years, architected through easy victories against sides of lesser calibre? The jury is still out on those two. But another persistently nagging question that will certainly be answered soon is this: can England play subcontinent conditions?
England left for India on Thursday and are now preparing for what looks to be a gruelling Test tour of the subcontinent. But I think it is safe to say their track-record, both long-term and short-term, of India has not always been a prodigious one.
The last time England won a series in India was in 1985, while recently England have shown little bite when countering spin bowling. Last year, they were hammered 5-0 in the ODI series in India, while the 3-0 whitewash by Pakistan in the UAE, exposed the cracks in the English Test edifice on dry, low, turner pitches.
The team is not exactly screaming of consistency and confidence either. This will be Alistair Cook’s first outing as Test captain after to the resignation of Andrew Strauss a. Although Cook has certainly and obviously been groomed for the role over the last few years, he has an absolute gauntlet ahead of him: By his own admission“[England] have a real, tough challenge ahead of us as a side…it has been almost 30 years since we won in India.”.
But it is not merely spin bowling that England will have to contend with on the subcontinent. I had the pleasure of interviewing Stuart Broad recently, and he told me that out in India, it is a completely different game; not necessarily because of the pitches, but because of the people.
The Indian fan is passionate about his cricket, and when Stuart bowled Sachin Tendulkar out at Bangalore, he was rewarded with the anger and derision of 80,000 Indians. England will have to be prepared to cope with this greater and irrational scrutiny if they want to succeed out there.
So what are their chances? It is not all doom and gloom thankfully. England have reintegrated Kevin Pietersen in recent weeks into the England set-up. In Pietersen lies a key to tackling spin-bowling and a charisma and natural attacking mentality that finds considerable purchase on the subcontinent: both in performances and in courting the elusive favour of Mumbaiker public opinion.
Moreover, it is an overstatement to imply that England are going to be facing outrageously spin-friendly tracks in India.The recent New Zealand tour pitches were so unhelpful to spinners that Indian captain MS Dhoni commented: “It felt more like we were in Napier than in India”. Flat tracks which provide easy batting stimulus will be found, and these are the opportunities for England’s young guns to fire. True, Dhoni has won more Test matches in India than any captain before him, but frankly, the New Zealand tour had his side questioned, challenged and pushed to the limit far too often. Most worryingly, India’s big guns of Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir, men who are expected to lead the Indian attack this winter, did not fire.
But the challenge really is there. Of the touring squad, only Cook and Pietersen have made centuries in India and if we are going on recent history, England’s chances do not look good. As Stuart Broad and Alistair Cook have said, it is all about confidence.
With a series of practice matches ahead of them, England must do all they can do ensconce in the exotic pitches of the subcontinent if ever they are to prove a challenge.