Five issues which could make England homesick

Stephen Brenkley analyses the potential problems new captain and his team will face in a tough Test series

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The Independent Online

1. Distracted players

It is too often forgotten that high-class sportsmen have other lives. Forgotten, too, that those other lives may impinge occasionally on their work where, for batsmen more than bowlers in cricket, it can be all over in a second.

At present there are potential preoccupations in the first Test for both Graeme Swann and Ian Bell. Swann went home last Wednesday to be with his family after his three-week-old daughter, Charlotte, fell ill.

He was due to leave his home in Nottingham again yesterday and board a return flight to Ahmedabad. Whatever the challenges facing him in India – and they are considerable and possibly career-defining – it would have been with a heavy heart that he took to the air.

Swann would not be human if he avoided thinking longingly of Nottingham in the next few days. Before the tour began, with Charlotte barely days old, he told The Independent: "I think a player has to compartmentalise his life. If you allow outside values to start messing with cricket then you're in trouble.

"At the end of the day it's tough shit, I chose to play cricket, I chose to get married, I chose to have a family. It is very, very hard leaving the kids."

For Bell the problem is that his wife is days away from giving birth to the couple's first child. He is going home after the first Test, will miss the second and has been candid enough to admit that he is aware his life is about to change forever. Somehow he has to avoid thinking it as Ravichandran Ashwin lopes in.

2. Alastair Cook

So far, the transfer of power has been seamless. Cook has assumed the captaincy from the retired Andrew Strauss in a calm, unfussy fashion. Watching from a distance, nothing seems to have changed. But then England have yet to play a Test.

The team and staff have all talked about how similar it all is. No doubt Cook will bring his own ideas and strategies to games but in tone it will be unchanged. But then England have yet to play a Test.

Cook has made one hundred with another innings of 97 in the matches leading into the series and his form appears unaffected by the cares of leadership. But then England have yet to play a Test.

Much will become clearer in the next month or so and a little more in the next week. India will unquestionably target Cook as a batsman because if you bring down the opponents' captain you are on the way to undermining his authority in the team.

In this respect, he may be at a more resilient stage of his career than Strauss, who was 31 when he took over, 34 when his batting began to show signs of decline. At 27, Cook may have assumed the job in the ideal period of life and career.

The next few weeks may begin to tell if that is so and, who knows, by the time he is 28 on 25 December he may feel that all his Christmases have come at once.

3. The Pietersen saga

What Cook has to cope with above all is Kevin Pietersen. England have done their utmost to airbrush from history the cataclysmic events of the recent past which saw Pietersen dropped and in prolonged talks about the precise nature of any future in the team, if he had one at all.

Presumably, Pietersen is still officially undergoing a process of reintegration, but everyone simply wants to move on. The ability to do so depends entirely on there being no further clashes. If Pietersen has grouses – whether about the Indian Premier League or the standard of new caps – he has to keep them to himself.

He rubs along with and respects Cook, but then that was true of his relationship with Strauss, which was capsized by a welter of now forgotten text messages.

Pietersen has started the tour in absolutely determined fashion. As ever, he has trained like a demon. When the players had a day off last week, most went for a round of golf; Pietersen had a net.

He scored a hundred much as he liked in the final warm-up match and is in prime, determined form.

Yesterday, in common with others, he had a session with the team psychologist, the highly respected Mark Bawden, and if that has helped to clear his mind further (along with the airbrushing) then he could score a mountain of runs in India.

The fact that he has yet to speak in public, and that the team management are ensuring he does not, means that things are not the same. Perhaps they don't care as long as Kevin is scoring runs and being diplomatic. It would be a triumph for Cook.

4. India's spinners

Above all, this is what will prey on English minds, and on England. India have spent the last few days in a training camp in Mumbai and will arrive in Ahmedabad today.

Much of their attention, directed by their cunning coach, Duncan Fletcher, will have been aimed at undermining England with spin. It is why England have faced so little of it in the last fortnight.

From Thursday onwards they will be confronted by stuff of high quality, probably in the shape of Ashwin, a rapidly advancing off-spinner with several tricks, and Pragyan Ojha, the slow left-armer (73 wickets between them in five matches together). That leaves a performer as experienced and accomplished as Harbhajan Singh in reserve – but England know more about him and India know that.

England insist and keep insisting that they have learned from their peccadilloes in Asia earlier this year. The evidence of the last warm-up match did not wholly support that. When they lost wickets in their first innings it tended to be to spin.

Patience will be the main requirement, as it usually has been when England have won in India. Grind them down, make enough runs and let England's seamers go to work.

The additional concern, of course, is that those seamers are fit. Both Steve Finn (thigh) and Stuart Broad (heel) are in a race against time. One or both could lose it and the feeling is that one of Tim Bresnan or Graham Onions, the former being more likely, will play.

5. Catches win matches

England have been dropping too many chances lately. Part of the reason for Hashim Amla's dominance for South Africa last summer – apart from being a prodigiously gifted player in the form of his life – was that England kept spurning chances he offered, seven in all, including two in his triple hundred at The Oval.

In their last warm-up match several more have gone begging. Perhaps there is no specific reason but it is certain that the slip cordon will be under close scrutiny.

With Strauss's retirement, Cook has moved to his old position at first slip.Having spent much of the past three years at mid-off or close in under a helmet, he is unfamiliar with it. Nor has he the most dependable pair of hands or the swiftest reflexes. Swann, at second, has been in indifferent form in the latter part of the year and the slick hands of Jimmy Anderson cannot be in the slips when he is bowling. Jonathan Trott has been seconded, Pietersen, never the surest, has been flirting in and out.

If catches start going down early, the effect will sweep through the team. If only they could have bottled what they found in Australia two years ago when what went in the air never went to ground.