How not to prepare for a Test series

Beset by problems in the run-up to the Test series against England next week, the burden is on the tourist's bowlers to rise to the task, says Ramaswamy Mohan
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If England's cricketers go into next week's first Test with understandable apprehension, given their performances over the last six months, they can console themselves with one thought. However fragile their morale, it is almost certainly higher than that of their Indian opponents.

Indeed, at no time on four previous visits to England in the modern era has an Indian team experienced so much difficulty in the run-up to the Test series.

In the first place, the weather has not been kind. They say it has been the coldest May since the Indian Sepoy Mutiny, and certainly they have not been ideal conditions for people who simply revel in heat.

Then there was the Sidhu affair. Navjot Sidhu's decision to walk out of the tour, and apparently Test cricket, has not exactly made him very popular, either in England where people are surprised at how any Test player can walk away from a tour, or back home where the reaction has been pretty strong. Whatever may have been his disenchantment with the captain and with some dubious selection policy which has affected him in particular, Sidhu had no clear reason to take such drastic action.

All the same, he becomes the first Indian cricketer to go back from a tour of England in contentious circumstances since 1936, when Lala Amarnath was sent back by his skipper, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram. The more is the pity since this is one team in which the line of communications has been kept open by a friendly cricket manager in Sandeep Patil, who has gone out of the way to bring in a fresh approach, for instance by giving players time off by rotation.

Still, the mood in the camp has been more like that which is said to be prevalent in the Pakistan cricket teams, in other words there are more personality clashes than in a House of Commons debate on Northern Ireland.

The team is, however, not in total disarray even if it has lost a specialist opener who is one of the few in contemporary cricket with a twin average over the 40-run mark in Tests and one-day internationals. It is, perhaps, in the batting that India can afford to lose a regular, because that is where they have much talent.

All the same, there is something of a Catch-22 situation to the summer. If it is bright and sunny, the batsmen, who have already shown signs of the kind of form which has earned them a name for wristily elegant stroke play, will prosper. But the bowling resources, very thin indeed, will suffer in a warm summer of fine batting pitches. On the other hand, if the season fulfils the worst fears of the men of the Met Office, the batting could stand exposed while the seamers will distinguish themselves, as they have done in the one-day series even in a 2-0 score line.

Then there are the pitches. Most of the Indian team are not accustomed to regular play on normal wickets. Far too much of their cricket is played on under-prepared pitches on which the spinners thrive and on which the batsmen became more than adept at milking runs off visiting bowlers. Unless they can roll up the Bangalore pitch and take it with them wherever they go, they will continue to suffer such problems.

Contrary to popular belief, one aspect that has not been a problem morale- wise is the impending succession from Mohammad Azharuddin to Sachin Tendulkar. The appointment has only to be formalised, but there is no excessive smell of ambition in the successor nor a sense of frustration in the incumbent. Azharuddin has said categorically that he is willing to play on under anyone - "if need be in Rahul Dravid's captaincy" as he himself put it. As the leaders of the batting, the captain and his deputy have a lot to do since there is not the same amount of class in the rest. The harmony between them is what is keeping this team together even in difficult times.

Three Test wins (one in 1971 and two in 1986) in England on 12 visits is not an imposing record; nor do 11 away wins in all their history amount to much. The lean record abroad points to certain weaknesses in Indian cricket and in the psychology of its players when it comes to travelling and playing away from the dust bowls.

If Javagal Srinath and the much improved Venkatesh Prasad can look forward to movement in the early part of the summer, it may be that Anil Kumble, and any slow orthodox spinner who may combine with him, will have to wait for a dry spell, when the pitches may be more amenable to their craft. The key men have been deliberately under bowled so far but they will be really stretched in the Test series. Unless they fire, this is another Indian team which will be written off as pleasant tourists - an image somewhat spoilt now by the Sidhu affair - but far from winning visitors.

n Ramaswamy Mohan is the cricket correspondent of The Hindu and The Sportstar, India.