England need 'reintegrated' Kevin Pietersen to blunt India's spin menace
Captain must hope prodigal son KP can rewrite team's dismal record against 'slows'
It is 60 years since England's frailties against spin in India were first exposed. In the bazaars of downtown Ahmedabad they are no doubt already whispering along the lines of plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
If it seems a stretch to think French epigrams are being used in the bazaars of downtown Ahmedabad or many other places where cricket is played, it is nothing compared to the indecipherable, foreign language slow bowling on the subcontinent remains to England batsmen. The squad under the new command of Alastair Cook but without their belated addition, Kevin Pietersen, leaves today, via a four-day training camp in the UAE.
Until they prove differently, the threat of spin will hang over their every innings. India drew attention to it yesterday by picking an India A side to play the tourists without a single specialist spinner.
When Vinoo Mankad bewildered the tourists with left-arm spin in 1952 by taking 12 wickets in the fifth Test at Madras to give India their first victory and level the series, he was starting something. England had no answer to Mankad's intelligent variations of pace, and many subsequent attempts have been as hapless.
Generations of England batsmen have been found short of the necessary in Asia. Of the 712 wickets they have lost to bowlers on their Tests visits to India, beginning in 1933 when India were a fledgling international side, 213 have been to seam, 499 to spin. The 500th should be considered imminent.
The present bunch of batsmen demonstrated earlier this year they have learnt well from their predecessors by folding in a heap to Pakistan. Protestations that they have absorbed the lessons of that humiliation, and know what they are doing, must be treated with scepticism.
First, they have to repel the menace of India's recently established pairing of Ravichandran Ashwin, an off-spinner with add-ons, and the slow left-armer Pragyan Ojha. In four Tests together these two, both only 26, have taken 60 wickets.
When England went on that 1952 tour they took a second team, established players in those days preferring to give the subcontinent a miss. Things have changed a bit, and so anxious were England to ensure they took their best players for this trip that Pietersen, having been initially overlooked, has been added to the squad.
His presence will provide the defining element of the tour, and anything anybody in the England management or dressing room says to the contrary is eyewash. Pietersen had been in dispute with the team – management, colleagues, officials – for months.
It led, via his dropping for the final Test of the summer against South Africa and weeks of private talks, to his being subjected to, what was described as, a "process of reintegration". Whatever this was it seems to have gone smoothly enough.
Pietersen flew back from South Africa where he is on Twenty20 Champions League duty with Delhi Daredevils, met the coach Andy Flower and a few senior players and was invited to rejoin the team. But to pretend a line has been drawn in the dirt, should there be any left which has not been flying between the parties, and that all is now tickety-boo, is to ignore the acrimony of the previous few months.
Something happened in the England dressing room beyond the normal criteria of all human relationships whereby you get on better with some people than others. For a while, it seemed nobody was getting on with Pietersen and he had no wish to get on with anybody. Suddenly, they have made up. Needs must more than love actually. England will be a more accomplished side with Pietersen.
If England are to prevail in the series of four Tests to be played in the next two months, it will probably need Pietersen to play a significant hand at least once. But it will need others too, not least Cook and his new opening partner if they are to win for the first time since 1985, when India were between big-shot spinners.
The early indications are Cook will be accompanied by Joe Root, the 21-year-old Yorkshireman, after a record-breaking alliance with Andrew Strauss which spanned 68 matches beginning in 2006, and yielded 4,711 runs. Without solid starts, England could quickly find themselves being enveloped.
The appointment of any new captain brings an air of excitement. Cook has been groomed as Strauss's successor for at least two years since he took England to Bangladesh for two Test matches, but he might not have expected to assume the permanent leadership so soon.
Nobody should be in any doubt that it is a tough assignment. He has to try to reinvigorate a side in danger of plummeting down the rankings, having lost two of four series this year, maintain his own batting form and keep Pietersen happy. Answers on a postcard about which of those may be the most challenging.
The tour is also likely to bring the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar. Indeed, it is possible he will depart at Mumbai, his home, after the second Test if his poor Test form has continued.
More likely is he will see it through to Mohali in December. If nothing else, it may do something for crowds in a country now almost completely besotted by Twenty20. England will still have their work cut out. If a drawn series is not the height of their aspirations it would still be a welcome surprise.
Stats magic: England in India
54 Test wickets taken by Derek Underwood in India [1972-82] - the most by an English bowler.
128 Andrew Strauss's first-innings score in England's third Test victory in Bombay in 2006.
40.55 Kevin Pietersen's Test average in India – with a high score of 144, in Mohali in 2008 .
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