Proving ground for Team Vaughan

A strong showing where even Australia fear to tread is vital if Ashes are to lead anywhere

The Ashes heroes visited Buckingham Palace on Thursday to be honoured by the Queen. In essence the manifold OBEs and MBEs - no, that was not Tom Cobleigh in the photograph second row, third from the left - amounted to the thanks and relief of a grateful nation. Why, Her Majesty all but confessed to hiding behind the sofa because of the tension of it all.

On this scale of reward for achievement, if the lads can win the series in India for which they embark today, they should be back at Buck House sometime in late summer for serious promotion up the Order of the British Empire. And if they were to retain the Ashes in Australia later in the year as well, they should expect to wrap themselves in ermine-trimmed robes, with Michael Vaughan, the captain, well on the way to annexing the throne itself.

It will not work like that, of course, but it is one way of expressing precisely how difficult it remains to win on the subcontinent. At home, the Indian team remain the proud guardians of a fortress. Occasionally, it is infiltrated - Pakistan in 1999, South Africa in 2000, Australia in 2004 - but they are the only three defeats India have suffered in 25 home Test series over the past 19 years.

To the Australian Steve Waugh, who achieved pretty much every-thing possible in the game, winning there became an obsession. He called it "the final frontier", and he was rebuffed in his attempts to cross it three times, four if the one-off Test in 1996 were to be counted. He might, just might, have exchanged one of his eight Ashes triumphs to prevail once in India. Ten months after he retired in 2004 the team he had led went to India and won. There was national rejoicing. Australia were world champions all over the world (that was, of course, until they came to England again a few months later).

This is the measure of the challenge facing Vaughan as he enters the mature period of his captaincy. Nothing can diminish the sensational achievements of last summer, but to become only the fourth England captain to win a series in India would add significant lustre to the legend.

Despite his distant family relationship to the Tyldesleys of Lancashire, Vaughan does not possess Waugh's eye and ear for the history of the game. Nor does he speak with the passion of his predecessor, Nasser Hussain. But that is not to devalue his will and spirit and what lurks under-neath that urbane, deliberately dispassionate exterior.

He wants desperately to win in India all right and he knows its value. Vaughan said on Friday: "It will be a big challenge as a batsman and an equally big challenge to try and get their top nine batsmen out; if we come through the tour having done well, that certainly sets us up to play in any conditions." That was equivalent to Waugh calling for history to be made and Hussain ordering his men to storm the citadel until their hearts burst.

How to do it is what Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, must now work out, and quickly. They must do so understanding that if there is not injury there will certainly be illness. They must do so knowing that Vaughan is recovering from recent knee surgery, that Simon Jones will hardly have bowled a ball in anger since an operation on his ankle and that there is a largely unspoken but still niggling concern about Andrew Flintoff's ankle, which was beginning to irritate him in Pakistan. In the background of all their planning will loom like a shadow across the page the prospect of Australia in the autumn.

England travel having been roundly beaten by a burgeoning Pakistan late last year. It is tempting to airbrush this defeat from history, and it is probably safe to assume that it was not mentioned during the Palace knees-up by either commoner to royal or the other way round. Perhaps it is not insignificant that India followed England to Pakistan and, despite two high-scoring draws on dead pitches, were likewise repelled, and easily, on a more game surface at Karachi. Back at home, India will be a different proposition once more.

England, as Fletcher observed, will have to bat with somewhat more patience than they showed in Pakistan. True, they broke Australia by taking the attack to them and refusing to be cowed, but this has to be done in measured fashion on slow pitches. That last stricture applies to Vaughan as much as anybody, perhaps more so because of his position. He played in only two of the Tests in Pakistan but his urge to get on with it, to impose himself, demonstrated the thin line between the swashbuckler and the cavalier.

The capture of 20 wickets in at least one of the Tests to win the series will probably have to depend on the combined qualities of the seam quartet, and the hope that India do not provide a sequence of raging turners, in which case there will be only one winner.

Vaughan and England should take some heart from history. In England's most recent series wins in India, in 1976-77 and 1984-85, the seamers played key roles. So it must be for the fab four (plus Liam Plunkett) now.

This time, England have three spinners with three Tests and as many wickets between them, all of them belonging to Shaun Udal. It leaves Ian Blackwell and Monty Panesar with untold problems against batsmen who, we will be reminded for the umpteenth time, are the best players of spin in the world. Which is not unlike being told, as is about to be rediscovered in Turin, that Norwegians are the best Nordic skiers. So they should be.

The three Tests are at Nagpur, Mohali and Bombay. India have won four out of eight at Nagpur, losing last time, when Australia's seamers did the damage. Of the six previous matches at Mohali, four have been draws, including the most recent two, which were high-scoring. India's only win there was against England. The last Test pitch at Bombay was a disgrace and ended with Australia being bowled out for 93.

England have never played Tests in March in India. It will be hot everywhere all day every day, and extremely draining. India, becoming accustomed to a newish coach, Greg Chappell, and captain, Rahul Dravid, have not yet bedded down under this leadership. They have weak seamers and no obvious opening partner for Virender Sehwag. These are frailties Fletcher was born to expose.

England cannot, dare not, allow India to settle. Given individual gallantry as well as the team ethos they can win. They probably will not, but with the nature of their assignment later in the year they must avoid the sort of calamity provoking a recall to the Palace and a cry of: "Off with their heads."

TONY GREIG: HOW INDIA CHANGED MY LIFE

Tony Greig wowed India. He was treated everywhere with a fervour usually reserved for boy bands by pubescent girls. He did it with a straightforward approach: he embraced the place and its people and for this they adored him.

It led, indirectly at least, to a thumping 3-1 victory secured against the best spinners in the world, still England's finest on the subcontinent. In addition it allowed the tourists to make light of an event in the clinching victory which might easily have had calamitous consequences.

If it was Greig's wonderful showmanship and natural charisma that permitted the strategy, the original idea came from the most improbable of sources. Before the tour began in late 1976, Greig went out to dinner with Jim Swanton, the redoubtable cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, who was championing the England captain's cause.

"He just advised, 'Be nice to them and don't make the mistake of being critical of their umpires," said Greig. "On the tour four years earlier there had been one particular concerted appeal by England in a Test that didn't go down well. I just decided to adopt Jim's policy."

There was an irony in this because Swanton, whose career as one of the most influential voices in English cricket (correspondent and quasi-chairman of selectors) lasted half a century, never visited the subcontinent.

So Greig tipped up in India and was immediately asked about their officials, since the home country then still supplied both. "The debate had already started about whether there should be neutrals but I said that they had some of the best umpires in the world and until I was proved wrong I was sticking with that. Before we knew it we were 3-0 up and I believe it had something to do with my policy, because they never received anything other than flak from overseas teams. They gave decisions they might not have done, like bat-pad, which was unbelievable, but Jim should have the credit."

There was more. Greig clutched India to his bosom and engaged the crowds. "I'm not sure they had seen anything like it before but I knew they loved cricket and I loved being there, the passion of it. It was natural for me to go down and talk to them."

He was so adept at this that the crowds warmed to him more than to Bishen Bedi, India's captain. They loved it when an Indian batsman played and missed only for Greig to take his bat and demonstrate how the stroke might have been played.

There was controversy when John Lever, England's successful left-arm seamer, was accused of using petroleum jelly gauze on the ball to achieve swing. Bedi complained but seemed like a bad loser as Greig's team merely said the gauze was to stop perspiration. The explanation might have been vaguely unsatisfactory but the issue never went further. Even when India clawed back a consolation in Bangalore, it was Greig who led his team on a lap of honour.

He led from the front, too, with 342 runs, including 103 in Calcutta when he had a temperature above 100, and 10 wickets with off-spin and medium pace. The team were happy and united. So immense was his effect that in A History of Indian Cricket it is recorded: "Even in his own country Bedi could appear as the foreigner while Greig, the white South African-born English captain, astonishingly seemed more at home."

Barely a month later, Greig and England went off to Australia to play the Centenary Test, where he was instrumental in hatching plans for the breakaway Kerry Packer circus. "Jim Swanton could not believe it. He wrote me a letter which I have still got, but we never really spoke again."

TOURS DE FORCE

1961-62

INDIA 2 ENGLAND 0: India deserved first series triumph, though the tourists were disjointed. Eight leading players declined invitations and India's belated decision to tour West Indies, in an early example of muscle-flexing, meant England had to start in Pakistan, move to India and return to Pakistan. Three early draws merely delayed the inevitable.

1981-82

INDIA 1 ENGLAND 0: Top contender for dullest series ever. India went ahead on a sporting Bombay pitch by dismissing England for 102 and then ensured draws. In the next five Tests, only 103 out of a possible 200 wickets fell. Sunil Gavaskar embodied the defensive batting arts with 500 runs from 1,382 balls.

1984-85

ENGLAND 2 INDIA 1: One of England's greatest victories, coming from behind after the tour was rocked by assassinations of Indian premier Indira Gandhi and British deputy high commissioner Percy Norris. Graeme Fowler (left) and Mike Gatting provided the only example of two England batsmen scoring a double century in the same Test innings.

1992-93

INDIA 3 ENGLAND 0: India dominated from start to finish, inflicting overwhelming defeat on misguided, lopsided tourists. England followed on twice and lost twice by an innings. Poor selection, much too dependent on moderate seam bowling, and batting haplessness against a turning ball caused calamity from which England never truly recovered throughout the Nineties.

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