England have unquestionably taken four steps forward since their last change of management. That is one for each of the consecutive Test series victories they managed up to last March. The worry now is that the overwhelming defeat against a rampant Australia will come to represent a hundred strides backwards.
In retrospect, it is clear that England were in danger of being pushed off the map. The old joke about being lucky to come second was never more pertinent. Given that horrible reversal of fortune and the necessarily makeshift squad who leave for India on Tuesday they may need all the wiles they can muster to achieve a similar placing in the next seven weeks.
It is impossible to be confident about England's chances of winning or drawing the three-match series. The Australian experience apart their preparations have been marred by doubt about whether they should go at all. Duncan Fletcher, the coach, and Nasser Hussain, the captain, will have their work cut out to create an atmosphere which makes cricket seem important when personal survival will be pretty high on the agenda.
There are two straws to clutch at which, although extremely slippery, have the benefit of being recently manufactured. A year ago England went on the first leg of a deeply troublesome double tour. Pakistan before Christmas was to be succeeded by Sri Lanka after it and the portents were all bad. Against expert opinion, bookmakers' odds, two of the world's best spin bowlers and probably their own doubts England won in both countries.
They were both indomitable efforts defined by will rather than flair and thoroughly uplifting for that. It is those victories rather than the sequence of losses to Australia that Hussain will recall when imploring his charges to give their all in another sub-continental campaign. He will do so while massaging the other straw. There is a possibility that India will again be in disarray.
They are at present engaged in a Test series in South Africa and lost the first match last week despite two batsmen scoring centuries in their first innings. Their bowling was largely impotent and the second-innings battingwoeful.
Jagmohan Dalmiya, the recently installed president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, iterated yesterday that he would seek explanations for the inconsistency. If results do not improve forthwith that could be bad news for John Wright, the team's New Zealand coach, and the captain, Sourav Ganguly. England could find themselves facing a side who have been well beaten abroad and have a change of leadership and personnel.
So much for the buoyancy. Arguments for the likelihood that England will sink in Mohali, Ahmedabad and Bangalore are much more persuasive. Of their patchwork cadre of 16 players only two have more than 50 caps, 11 have fewer than 20, nine fewer than 10, four none. The level of inexperience is breathtaking. Most of the bowlers must still be wondering why they have been asked to make the trip. They will have to bowl as they have never bowled before for England to stay afloat.
But what, you may cry, of the batting fallibility that India showed in Bloemfontein last week. Well, this tends not to happen on their home turf.
At home – and their selectors will surely bear this in mind before bringing untried recruits of their own – India are authoritative. Although they lost to South Africa in India a couple of years ago, they famously came from behind against Australia last March. In one of the great matches they were forced to follow on in the Second Test having lost the first. Australia were resplendent.
What next happened defied belief. Having been 171 all out, a deficit of 274, they were 115 for 3 and 232 for 4 batting again, still behind. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid then put on 376 for the fifth wicket and India were back in the match and the rubber. Their batsmen are magnificent front foot strokeplayers.
England surely cannot hope to repel them by spin alone (if at all given the quality of it at their disposal) and precedent shows that seam has played a significant role in previous England victories in India. They have to find a mixture quickly. Last time England toured, in 1992-93, they played a line-up of four seam bowlers in the First Test at Madras and lost easily. There will be a plan – and it should be wished well – for Jimmy Ormond to double up as swing bowler and off-spinner. If he is good enough in one category it will be a triumph.
So to England's batting. That is where all their experience lies. There are grounds for thinking that a new opening partnership of Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan will (27 caps between them) will be around for some time. Trescothick has developed abundant self-belief, though he could do with working on a few technical flaws which see his bat come down crookedly while his feet are static. Vaughan has not opened in Tests before but he is stylish and unflappable. Both have sound temperaments.
It is the middle order where England must accrue the weight of runs to try to ensure against defeat. Graham Thorpe, restored to health, will be essential but the Marks, Ramprakash and Butcher, are revitalised. The contributions of Hussain, who began in his brief appearances last summer to look like an international batsman again, will be crucial.
Australia have changed the face of Test cricket by a bold approach which has brought unprecedented success. England must not be fooled into thinking they can emulate that. Attrition suits them better. It is harder to learn sometimes but it worked last winter.
Whereas then they repelled, respectively, Saqlain Mushtaq and Muttiah Muralitharan, they will now be confronted with Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble. Harbhajan had his moment in the sun against Australia with 32 wickets in three Tests, 28 of them in the last two. There has been evidence to suggest that he is not quite so devastating now and Kumble too might not be as incisive as he was once. But England's game plan – avoiding the sweep as much as possible – must be calculated carefully.
The probability is that India's inconsistency will veer towards its triumphant side at home. As for England, the days might have gone, when they packed their own foodstuffs for trips to the sub-continent. It is still wise in India not to drink directly from glasses but that has nothing to do with the need for England to pack as many straws as they can find.Reuse content