In the land of spin, England must stay fast and furious
Mastering Ashwin and Ojha while unleashing pace attack will be key to rare series win in India
One prize above all remains most precious for England cricketers. But after capturing the Ashes anywhere, winning a Test series in India is not far behind and tomorrow a team under a new captain begin their quest for a touch of sporting immortality.
The first of four Test matches is being played in the dry and dusty northern city of Ahmedabad, the Manchester of the subcontinent only in terms of its industry. India are favourites to win the match and the rubber, and the general assumption is that the tourists will succumb all too easily to spin bowling by not much later than lunchtime tomorrow if they bat and Friday teatime if they bowl.
There is no question that this will be India's line of attack and that the new duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, both in the embryonic stages of their international careers, are being talked up as though they deal in a spin language which is more difficult to decipher than ancient Sanskrit. It is up to England, promising that their interpretive skills have come on in leaps and bounds, to make them as easy to decode as Janet and John.
It is 28 years and four series since England last won a Test series in this country and if they had dared to tour here more, as they should have done, those figures would be much less rosy. Matt Prior, the England wicketkeeper whose form and inspiration, will be central to this campaign summed it up simply but perfectly yesterday.
"It's always a very challenging place to play," he said. "India know their conditions fantastically well like we do when we play in England. We're brought up playing the swinging ball and play it pretty well.
"These guys are brought up playing against the spinning ball and they play it pretty well. Certainly the shoe's on the other foot, if you will, but we've done a lot of good work – obviously after the bad experience of last winter, learning a lot from that and coming over here."
It is the experience of last winter that will haunt England until they can shake off the spectre. They went to play Pakistan in the UAE as the No 1 side in the world and were outwitted by smart slow bowling to which they yielded meekly.
There is nothing wrong with being beaten by superior opposition and Saeed Ajmal would be too slippery for stellar batsmen down the ages. It was the manner of the surrender. Forget the old-fashioned notion of offering only name, rank and serial number, this lot were revealing state secrets before lunch.
On that evidence it is difficult to be optimistic. But England have lined up, man by man, on this tour so far and delivered two mantras: that the Kevin Pietersen issue which almost brought English cricket to its knees is behind them and that they have discussed how to play spin bowling in Asia long into the night and now know how it should be done. Alastair Cook, their new captain, is quietly convinced.
As he has been for the last seven years, Pietersen will be central to their objectives. It is probably why England were quite so keen to overlook his misdemeanours quite so quickly. Pietersen has been generous with his advice in the past month and his knowledge of India and their players, gained not only through the Indian Premier League but also an awareness of batsmanship that has come with maturity, could be indispensable.
Perversely, he (and Prior) are likely to bat in a slightly different fashion from most of the others. Pietersen might have come to understand the value of shot selection in a Test innings but he still likes to score at a decent lick. This means he will not succeed in every innings but if he can make, say, two substantial contributions while the others are playing for time and allowing India no openings, it could be invaluable. But it cannot all be about Pietersen.
Prior, the foreman on the field, spoke with some earnestness when he said: "I genuinely believe that it's the team in big situations that win you games and get you out of holes, 11 blokes pulling in the same direction rather than one or two or three individuals."
The scoring of runs, however, is but one aspect. England have to take 20 wickets and to do that they have to take their catches regularly and often, especially in an unfamiliar slip cordon whose members are strangers. Without the latter, the former is unlikely to happen.
If Ashwin and Ojha are expected to do the stuff for India, the feeling is that Graeme Swann's off spin will have to play a decisive role in at least one match for England. But the fast bowlers are also important for two reasons.
They have been England's strength in their recent rise and a worrying dip in form in the summer has not rendered them impotent. They have plans to unleash the raw pace of Steve Finn as soon as he is fit and when England have won in India before, their fast men have been pivotal. Derek Underwood took 29 wickets with his left-arm spin for Tony Greig's side in 1976 but John Lever and Bob Willis bagged 46 wickets between them, 31 of them as England took an unassailable 3-0 lead.
The last time England won in this country in 1984, the Essex seam bowler Neil Foster took 11 wickets in the match that clinched the series. Jimmy Anderson et al will be thinking along similar lines.
Seam has been England's strength and they should play to it. Leaving Ahmedabad level would also leave their ambition intact.
28 Years since England won a Test series in India.
Six Over half the 11 Tests at Ahmedabad ended in draws.
365 Number of Test runs Pietersen has hit in two series in India.
35.40 Wicketkeeper Matt Prior's batting average in 12 Tests in Asia.
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