Tall order for England to restore confidence

Strauss in dreamland but another bad display would leave morale at low ebb
  • @stephenbrenkley

Let the England captain tell it like it is today. "There's a huge sense of anticipation," said Andrew Strauss. "This is a huge occasion. It's going to be a great atmosphere, and I think it's one of those games that everyone dreams of playing – against India, in the World Cup on their home turf."

On the other hand Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Strauss's Indian counterpart, took a different perspective. "For us, each and every game is important," he said. "We prepare likewise for every game, Bangladesh, England, Australia, Ireland. I think that is what is important, to have the same preparation level throughout the tournament. It's an important game but the preparation remains the same."

Strauss was accurately reflecting what it is like to be a cricketer in India at present, where the attention of a nation is devoted to cricket in general and the India team in particular. Dhoni was trying (and probably failing) to deflect that attention because to do otherwise might be to succumb to it.

There should be no doubting the significance of today's game in a tournament which, if not a damp squib, is in danger of failing to catch fire. It could make or break the next three or four weeks as the 10th World Cup meanders to the quarter-finals.

The result could determine places in the group, and who plays who and where in the later stages. But it could also set the tone for how the major teams intend to approach their business. And there is the inherent appeal. India against England, the modern powerhouse of the game against the country that invented it, the old major segment of the empire against the country whose empire it largely was. Had this match been in Kolkata, as it was planned to be, it would have had more resonance.

The demand for tickets in the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, with a capacity of 75,000 fewer than Eden Gardens, led to unsavoury scenes this week which were avoidable and inevitable at once. Only 7,000 tickets were available for public sale; demand was 100 times that. The queueing crowd was attacked by police, whose only defence was that it would certainly have grown out of control had they not attacked.

On the face of it, England have littlechance of securing a victory which could provide impetus and belief to their World Cup. They have lost 11 of their previous 12 one-day matches against India in India and their protestations that they are a different team now do not quite square with the fact that eight of the team played in the 5-0 drubbing two years ago.

But their attitude, and their psychological state, have been lifted by their runaway victory in the World Twenty-20 last spring and the similarly overwhelming triumph in the Ashes. England know they belong with the best.

Neither captain was convinced of the wisest course of action yesterday. The pitch, conventionally one of the few in India with a hint of pace and carry, turned alarmingly in two World Cup warm-up matches.

The groundsman, Narayan Raju, made it clear that it was unlikely to be so favourable to spin again but England may opt for a second spinner to hedge their bets. They could also have decided that India are so adept against spin that Mike Yardy's brand may be insufficiently testing.

Equally, India may prefer the leg-spin of Piyush Chawla to the capricious pace of Sreesanth, who went for 53 runs from five overs in the opening game against Bangladesh. Chawla could be increasingly influential for India as this competition progresses and he took four wickets in Bangalore in the warm-up match against Australia.

England's best hope of pulling off a surprising victory probably lies in their bowling and fielding. Some hope, considering that these were the two departments in which they looked so shabby in their narrow opening victory against Holland last Tuesday.

But it must be remembered that England's bowling has been growing in skill for a year and their fielding has become a model of discipline. Regain their form in those disciplines – and they have to – and India's vaunted batting line-up, with Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag at its head, may feel menaced.

There is also the unknown factor of how India react, which is why Dhoni deliberately sought to downplay the match. The expectation on an Indian cricketer is always huge and a World Cup only enhances it. Their fans will be at the ground from early morning; most of them will not have tickets.

Dhoni said that every game for India was a pressure game. But, conceding a little, he added that having played in the Indian Premier League may also help them to cope because there was constant pressure in that. The IPL is not then one long party with the games a mere inconvenience.

Today's result will not decide who wins the World Cup but it will go some way to revealing who has a genuine chance. Should England lose badly, they can be virtually written off because their confidence, already dented by their dud performance on Tuesday, would struggle to recover. But if they prevail, India's ability to win the tournament at home, where they have failed twice before – partly because the country demanded it too much – will suffer accordingly.

Strauss said: "It's a great opportunity for us and one we're very excited about. I don't think it's a case of reinventing the wheel. We just need to play good, smart cricket. We need to play well, we're under no illusions about that. But I think there's a real vibe and excitement and enthusiasm about our guys that we hope we'll bring to the pitch come tomorrow afternoon." An England victory is the tallest of orders. If it happens, take it for granted that anything is possible.

India versus England is on Sky Sports 2 today. Play starts at 9am