Hussain and Ganguly walk the tightrope

Cricket at the crossroads: Fraught fortnight ends with a tinderbox Test and the eyes of the world on the two captains
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The Independent Online

After the storm, the calm of an official Test match, or at least that is the message coming from both captains as well as the match referee, Denis Lindsay. Yet the reality could be different and while it is feasible for India to take comfort in being on home soil again, England, largely inexperienced in both deed and conditions, cannot be too timid if they are to contest the series.

Nasser Hussain's team can compete, too. India may be virtually unbeatable in India, but not in Mohali, where the First Test starts tomorrow. Three Tests have been played here and they have yet to win. Returning from South Africa humbled in mind and body, India have been distracted. They also have five players on suspended sentences, including Sachin Tendulkar (one Test) and Sourav Ganguly (one Test and two one-dayers), a factor bound to play on their minds and that of Lindsay. One wrong step, and the series might become a powder keg.

As home captain, Ganguly is also under pressure to deliver. Yesterday he was openly critical of the selectors for not consulting him before picking an uncapped three-man pace attack for the well-grassed pitch. He may have a point, and when the trio tried to check in to the team hotel they were forbidden entry by security guards, who thought they were fans.

Rarely a man to let his displeasure go unnoticed, Ganguly missed yesterday's nets to remain in Calcutta with his wife and new-born daughter. With seven infringements of the International Cricket Council's Code of Conduct to his name he is a leader, but of brat packs not men.

Hussain, who showed some boldness in laying the blame for the recent politicking at Jagmohan Dalmiya's door, reckons the key word for his young side is discipline. Cricket is played and supported with great passion in India, and it is easy to lose control if you are on the receiving end, something most visiting sides since Alexandra the Great 2,300 years ago have experienced.

"I will have my usual meeting with the match referee today and try and find out what his pet hates are," said Hussain after practice yesterday. "It might be excessive appealing, it might be outsized logos. Whatever it is, I have to convey that to my players. As regards the cricket, discipline is paramount. We have to get the ball in the right place again and again, while trying to bat with care and concentration at all times, as we did last winter in Pakistan."

With only a short lead-in period, players have not had time to get fit through cricket. With five first-time tourists, and several on their second, the team ethic has also suffered from the curtailed warm-up. "It's all very different at this level, so it is a bit like starting again, especially when trying to find the unity we had in the last few series," said Hussain. "I've nothing against the players here, but you don't just suddenly get that by having a few team dinners. It comes from hard work."

The effectiveness of their efforts will soon be apparent. Mohali boasts a magnificent stadium to rival the world's best, while its friendly climate will tire only double centurions and those bowling 30 overs a day. Yet for all the talk of bowler-friendly conditions, the pitch is far less coltish than when West Indies terrorised India's batsmen here seven years ago. A trip to the ground yesterday revealed a hard surface – it hasn't rained since September – and an even covering of grass. Better growth has been achieved since the groundsman replanted the square with Bermuda grass, a variety that grows during the dry, cool winter months when cricket in India is played.

Taking 20 wickets in Tests is difficult for sides visiting India, and another factor that could help England's cause is the lush outfield, which will enable the ball to keep its shine. Reverse swing, something only Craig White is comfortable bowling, needs bare squares and outfields to help rough up the ball. India's reverse-swingers are more accomplished, which was confirmed when Sanjay Bangar, one third of India's rookie pace attack, took five England wickets with it in Hyderabad.

The dewy December mornings common to these northern parts should aid the conventional seam and swing favoured by the likes of Matthew Hoggard, James Ormond and Richard Johnson, though England could have done with another match or two to get Johnson up to speed and test out Ormond's niggling shoulder. If fit, Ormond would surely be preferable on a seaming pitch, as he gets the ball in the right areas more often.

With only a miracle allowing Ashley Giles to get a five-day pass, a debut for either Richard Dawson or Martyn Ball, though not both, looks certain. Both are scrappers, though Ball's 14 years on the county circuit means he is less likely to be traumatised when Tendulkar and V V S Laxman start to blast away. If the little master pays Shane Warne no respect, he is not going to bother about blocking too many from England's spinners. At 31, Ball's skin is thicker, too.

England's batting looks less problematic, or at least it does until Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble get to work. Then, shot selection, something not exercised well so far by Mark Butcher or Graham Thorpe, but brilliantly by Mark Ramprakash, will be critical.

Compared to last winter, when he appeared to relish the challenge of spin on dusty pitches, Thorpe has been something of a distracted passenger on this tour. Indeed, if he hadn't the weight of last winter's momentous batting feats behind him, 553 runs in six Tests at 61, he might easily be replaced by Michael Vaughan in Monday's starting line-up.

With two all-rounders, Craig White and Andrew Flintoff, almost certain to play, Vaughan is set to miss out again. Fortunately the Yorkshireman is a phlegmatic character, a trait those playing might need should India suddenly get their act together.

England (probable): N Hussain (capt), M E Trescothick, M A Butcher, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, C White, A Flintoff, M C J Ball, J S Foster, J Ormond, M J Hoggard.

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