England tourists need to revive the spirit of Gower

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When it comes to cricket, there are two Indias – one that is indomitable at home, and the one that is hapless abroad. England, on their first tour there for nine years will meet the first, a side who have lost just two Test series at home since David Gower's side beat them in 1984-85.

All logic dictates that the tourists, depleted by experienced players such as Alec Stewart, Darren Gough and Andy Caddick, and distracted by worries over security, will do well not to lose all three Tests. Nasser Hussain may be returning to home soil – he was born in Madras – but neither he nor a single member of his squad has ever played a Test match in India.

For Hussain, the pessimism will sound familiar. A similar forecast preceded last winter's tours to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, both of which were won. Yet, different circumstances abounded then; England were at full strength and arrived cock-a-hoop after beating the West Indies for the first time in 31 years.

They also did not have the current apprehensions about their safety, something that could niggle away for weeks. Those who feel the players' reticence over touring to be a big fuss over nothing should cast their mind back to England's last trip in 1992-93. In a one-day match against India in Mohali, just outside the northern city of Chandigarh, where the first Test is scheduled on 3 December, 100,000 people tried to invade a ground already full. As a path was cleared for the Governor of Punjab, shots were fired killing one policeman and injuring another. In a region where sport, religion and politics can cause frenzy, extra caution should not be scoffed at.

Young players are pliable and optimism can take root, but it helps to have a precedent, which is why England's captain would do well to mine Gower's tour for a blueprint.

Taking place amid political upheaval following the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Sir Percy Norris, Britain's deputy high commissioner, they managed to win the five-Test series 2-1 after losing the first Test. Without Ian Botham, who declined to tour, success was conjured from two moments of inspiration, one with bat and one with ball.

On India's largely batsman-friendly pitches the latter was the more important and it came from Neil Foster, a young fast bowler from Essex, who took 11 wickets in the fourth Test in Madras. Matthew Hoggard is exactly at the same stage of his career now as Foster was then.

They are similar bowlers too and although Hoggard will not be visiting the bouncy track at Chepauk stadium where Foster wreaked his havoc, the pitch at Mohali has similar properties. Last year, New Zealand's pace men dismissed India for 83 there, after taking advantage of the heavy morning dew that fall in northern parts during December.

But before inspiration strikes, England, with their inexperienced attack – Hoggard, Richard Johnson and Jimmy Ormond have three caps between them, have to be disciplined with the ball and take every chance going. As the senior professional, Craig White will have to put an insipid summer behind him and rediscover last winter's form, where his pace and reverse swing caused problems.

India's batsmen, while an awesome sight on song, can falter under pressure. Sachin Tendulkar, arguably the world's finest batsman, can be worn down by a strict line probing outside his off-stump. Of course it is a fine line, especially against a batting order that includes such forceful strokemakers as Vangipurappu Laxman, Rahul Dravid, the new boy Virender Sehwag and the captain Sourav Ganguly, but still one the Australians had success with before their gung-ho tendencies allowed India to sniff a way out.

In batting and pace bowling, Gower's side was not dissimilar in experience or ability to Hussain's. In the spin department, the master-key to most cricket on the sub-continent, the gulf is vast. Back in 1984, Phil Edmonds and Pat Pocock were the equal anything India had, a fact that dissuaded the home groundsman from their usual practice of preparing dusty turners.

Mind you, there is something of a honey-trap here and, while most of the pitches aid spin, Indian batsmen play it better than anyone else. In fact they murder it, a fact to which Shane Warne can readily attest.

This time, it is India with Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh who hold all the wizardry, England's main spinning options coming from two rookie off-spinners, Richard Dawson and Martyn Ball, and the left-armer Ashley Giles, who can barely jog following a recent operation on his Achilles tendon. Giles, who was the leading wicket-taker a year ago in Pakistan, would be vital if he were fully match fit, but he is not expected to play in any of the three warm-up matches leading up to the Tests.

Kumble's time in county cricket, with Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, will make his dipping top-spinners and googlies less of a mystery than when England last toured nine years ago. In that series which England lost 3-0, he took 21 wickets in three matches.

By contrast, Harbhajan's bouncy off-spin will only have been seen by England on video scything its way through Australia's batting line-up. Along with Laxman's runs, it was Harbhajan's 32 wickets in three Tests that clinched India's Lazarus-like comeback to defeat Australia.

With spin mainly a threat to England's batsmen, especially at Ahmedabad and Bangalore, the new ball must be taken advantage of, something Australia's Matthew Hayden did by averaging over 100 in the recent series. For England, Marcus Trescothick and either Mark Butcher or Michael Vaughan will open the innings. They, along with the other specialist batsmen, must sell their wickets dearly, something they did not do against Australia in the summer.

Providing they follow that lead all the way down the order, run scoring should not be as much a problem as taking wickets. India's return from South Africa, providing they carry on as haplessly as they started, could also help England's cause, though there could be a backlash should they lose heavily. As Indian players down the ages have found to their cost, with their effigies burnt in the street, losing a series at home is simply not an option.

Comments