Wannabes versus world champions whets appetite

 

Having popped home for a wash and brush-up, England departed yesterday to play a series of one-day internationals in India. A reasonable question to ask would be: "What the heck is going on?" The two countries have barely finished playing each other in all forms of the game in England and without drawing breath are being expected to do some of it all over again. It is an odd engagement, a mini-tour of five one-day internationals and a Twenty20 match.

Considering that England are scheduled to go to India next winter for a full tour it makes less sense. India's players probably have more reason to complain than their opponents. No sooner will England have left than India are scheduled to play West Indies at home before embarking for Australia, almost immediately after which, governments permitting, they are due to play Pakistan.

Alastair Cook, England's one-day captain, looked and sounded much more enthusiastic than he might have done as he prepared to board a flight for Hyderabad yesterday. "It will be a really tough challenge," he said. "What could be tougher than playing the champions in their own backyard? We have a number of new players and you can see the excitement in their faces. What a great place to play."

It is a relentless whirligig that the players find themselves on. If India sometimes gave the impression these past few months that defeat against England was not exactly cutting them to the quick, then it may have been because they hardly knew where they were. The next fortnight will at least give India an opportunity to be feted by their adoring fans. The team have not played at home since that unforgettable April night in Mumbai when they won the World Cup and brought the nation to a standstill.

Only four of the side that lifted the trophy are in the squad for the first two of the five one-day matches. Injuries, some of them probably caused by an overload of cricket, have deprived them of key players – Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan – but that will not stop their supporters giving the others a welcome home fit for heroes.

This may be one reason why the matches are all being played in major centres rather than satellite cricketing towns, some as unpronounceable as they are impenetrable, whither England have sometimes been dispatched on recent trips to the subcontinent. Another reason is that reasonable relations have been restored at last between the England and Wales Cricket Board and the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

England will thus pitch up, and be grateful for it, in Hyderabad, where they will spend the first 12 days, Delhi, Chandigarh, Mumbai and Kolkata. Superfluous to requirements or not, England at least have the opportunity to allow their new boys to bed in.

Playing on the slow, turning pitches which they can probably expect after the quicker seamers they prepared for India's visit to England, they can show how wise they have become. There are exciting elements about the next month. England have still not quite worked out what their strongest batting order is in one-day cricket. Without Eoin Morgan, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, they are undoubtedly weaker but they can try out other options at the top. Given that they seem tied to the opening partnership of Alastair Cook and Craig Kieswetter, they then have to decide what to do with the rest.

There is a case for Ian Bell opening, but if not he may struggle to play. Jonathan Trott has work to do to convince as a natural No 3, the returning (and thankfully so) Kevin Pietersen has to get runs pretty quickly.

"Part of our job is to try to get Kevin back to playing as he did. The Pietersen with an average of 50 and a strike rate of 100 is a huge element to the England side. I am sure he would have liked to have played in the home series against India. I see him batting high in the order, he's refreshed and ready to go. I see Kevin as a huge part of the one-day side through to the 2015 World Cup."

But there is work to be done as Cook acknowledged. Pietersen's last one-day hundred was three years ago – in India – and his average in his 30 innings since is 23.

The prospect of seeing Jonny Bairstow begin to launch what could be an enduring international career is a thrilling one. As is seeing Scott Borthwick, a leg-spinner from Sunderland (than which there can hardly have been greater contradictions in the game). Borthwick took his first wicket in international cricket last week at The Oval with a perfectly flighted googly. Seeing him produce more where that came from is enticing indeed. Another spinner, Samit Patel, has yet to be entirely persuasive that both his body and his left-arm slow bowling are up to the rigours of the international game. In the absence of Stuart Broad (injured) and Jimmy Anderson (rested) a new seam combination will be tested in its level of sophistication and versatility on uninviting surfaces. Jade Dernbach's slower balls will be scrutinised as never before and Steve Finn's pace continues to rise.

In truth, we should be sated after the summer. But England in India, the wannabes against the world champions, it still whets the appetite.

England in India

Saturday 50-over warm-up match, Hyderabad (Gymkhana)
11 October 50-over warm-up match, Hyderabad (Gymkhana)
14 October 1st ODI v India (D/N), Hyderabad (RGI Stadium, Uppal)
17 October 2nd ODI v India (D/N), Delhi (Ferozeshah Kotla)
20 October 3rd ODI v India (D/N), Mohali (PCA Stadium)
23 October 4th ODI v India (D/N), Mumbai (Wankhede Stadium)
25 October 5th ODI v India (D/N), Kolkata (Eden Gardens)
29 October Twenty20 v India (D/N), Kolkata (Eden Gardens)

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