India’s recent away Test record is abysmal. The momentous victory at Lord’s less than a month ago, which seemed to have broken the cycle of defeat and mediocrity, has been followed by a return to the familiar pattern.
Whether it affects the standing of the players and their leaders, the captain, M S Dhoni, and the coach, Duncan Fletcher, is doubtful. Back home one-day cricket, especially Twenty20, is king, and while lip service is paid to the importance and standing of Tests, it seems nothing more than that.
Unless there is another dramatic reversal at The Kia Oval in the next five days, Fletcher’s reputation as one of the world’s shrewdest and smartest batting coaches is bound to suffer. By and large, India’s top order have simply not performed to the required standard, bereft both of method and application.
This may not be entirely Fletcher’s fault, dealing as he is with players who are used to limited-overs cricket and completely unaccustomed to Test series of five matches. But whatever he is telling them about how to approach England bowlers on English pitches, something of which he has deep experience, is not working.
Fletcher has been coach in more Test matches than anybody. There were 96 with England before he left following their 5-0 defeat in the 2006-07 Ashes series. Appointed by India in April 2011, he has coached them in a further 34 Tests.
Of those, 19 have been away from home. India have won only two and lost 12, returning to the sort of form on tour which dogged them until Sourav Ganguly transformed them in the five years from 2000. Under Ganguly they won 11 of 28 away Tests, the like of which has not been known before or since.
Dhoni was as phlegmatic as ever today. He had taken a day off on Wednesday, missing practice, which seemed odd with his side in apparent disarray. “It was personal,” he said. “That’s why it was a day off. I felt like taking a day off and I took one.”
Despite the form of their batsmen, India will continue with their policy of five bowlers. It is possible that Ravindra Jadeja’s left-arm spin will make way for Stuart Binny’s medium pace, though it is difficult to see that much will be gained.
What may lift the tourists’ spirits is the return of Ishant Sharma, whose bumper barrage at Lord’s turned the match in his team’s favour. At his most potent, Sharma is fast and menacing, though those qualities have often been diminished by a lack of direction.
He is likely to replace the toiling, smiling Pankaj Singh, whose wait of 416 balls for his first Test wicket was the second longest in history and entranced the cricket public. Having finished the Manchester Test with two wickets, Pankaj is probably about to find there is no room for sentimentality in sport.
The batting order will probably be unchanged. Any temptation to promote Cheteshwar Pujara to open is likely to be resisted since he has no form to speak of. India have gone 19 innings without their openers mustering 50 together.
Part of the trouble is the incessant schedule. India, strangers to long series, also have a frantic programme. There is little time between matches and series to work on changes to their technique. Dhoni lamented the lack of an off season, of a time for recuperation when amendments can be made, but he knows nothing will be changing.
In Manchester last week, India were eight for 4 in their first innings and lost their last nine wickets in 22 overs in the second. Improvement on that is vital but may not necessarily be sufficient unless Fletcher still has a guru’s trick or two to play.
The Oval: Match details
England A N Cook (capt), S D Robson, G S Ballance, I R Bell, J E Root, M M Ali, J C Buttler (wk), C R Woakes, C J Jordan, S C J Broad, J M Anderson.
India M S Dhoni (capt; wk), M Vijay, G Gambhir, C A Pujara, V Kohli, A M Rahane, R Ashwin, S T R Binny, B Kumar, V R Aaron, I Sharma.
Umpires K Dharmasena (SL) & P Reiffel (Aus)
The Oval pitch report Looked to have a tinge of green, but that can change. It is expected to be a batting strip without nullifying bowlers and will not have quite the pace and carry of the highly praised Manchester pitch.
TV Sky Sports 2, 10am-7pm. Highlights: Channel 5, 7-8pm.
Weather Dry and overcast, with intermittent sunshine. Maximum temperature: 21C.
Series details (Eng lead 2-1)
First Test (Trent Bridge) Match drawn
Second Test (Lord’s) India won by 95 runs
Third Test (Ageas Bowl) England won by 266 runs
Fourth Test (Old Trafford) England won by inn & 54 runs