Pietersen rallies England in wake of 'freak' show
Captain seeks to lift his demoralised side ahead of tomorrow's second Test
Thursday 18 December 2008
What does a fighter do when his best punch hits an opponent flush on the chin and it only breaks a whisker? That is the quandary facing England as they prepare for tomorrow's second Test against India here.
In the first Test at Chennai, Kevin Pietersen's side landed several telling blows that would have KO'd most opponents, but India, after taking a couple of standing counts, came back brilliantly to win a remarkable game by six wickets. Since that epic encounter Pietersen has been faced with the challenge of convincing a demoralised side that they can overcome the form team in world cricket.
"The lads can feel confident purely from the fact that we won 70 per cent of that fixture and unfortunately got pipped at the post," said Pietersen, the ever-enthusiastic England captain. "It still is a bitter pill to swallow, but at least we got close, a lot closer than we thought.
"We really pushed this strong Indian side right until the last session of the final day of the Test. We didn't lose a session until the fourth afternoon. Everybody probably wrote us of before we got here, but the guys have been really special since they jumped on the plane for India, they are fully committed and have put a huge amount of effort in.
"I suppose the game in Chennai was a missed opportunity, but we tried everything we could. India have a freak of a bloke opening the batting [Virender Sehwag] and a freak batting at four [Sachin Tendulkar]. Sehwag took the game away from us and when Tendulkar plays like that, it is very difficult. But the guys are raring to go again. They have trained with purpose here, with the aim being to level the series. It hasn't been a great start to the winter and we want to finish this year on a positive note."
England's spirits would have been raised as they walked out to inspect the pitch. Indian pitches normally look like Yul Brynner's head but the one here looks verdant. A closer inspection showed the grass covering to be patchy – more implant than Mohican in appearance – but, even so, it could give England's faster bowlers something to work with.
The climate here in the north east is kinder too. Chennai, when the sun came out, was like an oven, whereas Mohali is far cooler. The conditions will allow Pietersen to operate his fast bowlers in seven- or eight-over spells rather than the four, or five, they could manage in the first Test.
Such circumstances would suggest that England play an extra fast bowler but, as is always the case in India, it is not that simple. The ends of the pitch are bare and cracked and spin is once again expected to play a major role.
England have two major decisions to make now that Pietersen, who broke a rib playing squash the day before the fifth one-day international in Cuttack, has said that he will play. The first is whether they persevere with Ian Bell at No 3, or bring in Owais Shah. Bell continues to be a riddle. Many thought last summer's marvellous 199 against South Africa at Lord's would act as a catalyst for greater consistency, but it has not been the case. Since that innings he has scored just 157 runs at an average of 19.6.
Bell's one-day form has been indifferent, too, and it resulted in him being dropped for England's fifth limited over match on the day terrorists attacked Mumbai. Shah was England's most impressive batsmen during the one-day series and he deserves a go.
The tougher decision concerns England's bowling. Should Stuart Broad play and if so ahead of whom – James Anderson, Stephen Harmison, Monty Panesar, or Graeme Swann? The appearance of the pitch would encourage England to play a fourth seamer, and if that is the case it will probably be instead of Swann. Panesar was disappointing in Chennai, but he remains the likelier match-winner.
But before picking the side the selectors should look at the Test played here two months ago. Then India's spinners – Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra – took 12 Australian wickets as they gave the world champions a 320-run thrashing. England's last two appearances here, both crushing defeats, should have taught them the value of playing spinners too. In the two Tests India's slow bowlers shared 26 of the 40 England wickets to fall.
The weather, and in particular the early sunsets, may prove to be as big an obstacle as India's batsmen for England. In an attempt to counter the issue – the light begins to fade on a cloudless day before the scheduled close of play – there is talk of floodlights being used, or the start being brought forward by half an hour to 9am local time.
Pietersen is not confident his opponents will agree. "I don't think we will use floodlights," he said. "We used them during practice in Abu Dhabi and it didn't work – the red ball was hard to see. There could be cause for an earlier start but that brings the early morning dew into consideration. India would need to agree to that and they are 1-0 up in the series. We would probably have said 'no' had we won in Chennai."
India have given Rahul Dravid one last Test to prove his worth and they will consider playing Munaf Patel – a seamer – ahead of Mishra. When Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian captain, sees the pitch he will no doubt ask the groundsman to sharpen the blades on his mower and get pushing.
Second Test Mohali: Probable teams
M S Dhoni (capt, wkt)
S T Tendulkar
V V S Laxman
K P Pietersen (capt)
A J Strauss
A N Cook
O A Shah
P D Collingwood
M J Prior (wkt)
G P Swann
S C J Broad
S J Harmison
M S Panesar
Umpires: A Rauf (Pak) and D J Harper (Aus)
Venue: Punjab Cricket Association Stadium, Mohali
India's margin of victory in the last Test match played in Mohali – against Australia, the world's No 1 side.
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