An Indian cricket tour to England has always had an aura and that extra interest amongst the millions of cricket fans around the world. The Parsee team that toured England in 1886 and 1889 and the team taken to England in 1911 by the Maharaja of Patiala were as keenly followed as the present Indian team . India made their official debut as a Test playing nation in England, when they played a Test match at Lords on 25th June 1932. Since then, India has had only three memorable series in England. The first was in 1971 when they beat England for the first time in England and went on to win the series. This is referred to popularly as the 'Renaissance of Indian cricket', as India had also beaten West Indies on their shores earlier.
With these wins, India became the unofficial champion Test side. Since then India has had just two more successful tours and those were in 1986 and 2007. The latter was a significant win, as the cricket encounter between England and India was called the Pataudi Trophy. The two Nawabs, father and son, led India and it was a wonderful tribute by the English administrators to name the trophy after them. The glorious moment at the Oval, however, was when the glittering trophy was handed over to the Indian captain, Rahul Dravid, by one India’s greatest captains and cricketers, the late Nawab Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.
India unfortunately, never again have had the privilege to lift the trophy and the series defeats in 2011 and 2014 against England are memories that still haunt the Indian cricketers and fans. The foremost thought in the mind of each and every Indian cricket lover is for the present Indian cricket side to beat England and prove that they are the number one side in the world. India has won 10 series since 2015 and their only defeat has been against South Africa, going down narrowly to them 2-1. India did manage to win the last Test match against the Proteas in Johannesburg, at the beginning of this year and thereafter, convincingly demolished Afghanistan recently at home.
The upcoming Test series between India and England will finally have the cricket connoisseur enjoy some serious conventional cricket for a change. The Pataudi Trophy will get underway on August 1, 2018 at Edgbaston in Birmingham. The interest that this Test series has generated can be gauged by the immense demand for tickets at all the venues.
The Indian team has had a good month acclimatising themselves through a victorious series in the T-20 format against Ireland and England. They did lose the One-Day series against England 2-1 after having won the first match, but the interesting outcome of it is that the Indian think tank, was experimenting with the players rather than looking at a short-term success. This was a good approach as India seems to be looking ahead to the World Cup being played in England next year. England, on the other hand, is the champion One-Day side and they played some good cricket to keep India at bay.
India will be going into the Test series as firm favourites, especially taking into account their success as a Test side in the last three years. The team has developed into a very astute fighting unit, as even selecting a playing side has become a challenge. There are several options available for each slot in the team and that is a good sign for Indian cricket.
The present Indian team has several players, who were a part of the 2014 side. They all carry the stigma of being beaten convincingly the last time they toured England. Their disastrous defeat in Manchester and at the Oval must still rankle in their minds. One of the failed victims was Virat Kohli, India’s superstar and captain. One gets the feeling, that the present Indian team has one definite goal in mind and that is to take revenge for the humiliation that they faced earlier and erase it from their memory for good. This attitude has rarely been seen in any Indian side earlier. The preparation till now seems to be ideal, with the English weather basking in sunshine. India has never before started a Test series in the month of August and this should be favourable, as a hot Indian like summer will be definitely more advantageous to them, rather than to their hosts.
The wickets in England are already looking dry and slow and they seem to be more conducive to a spinner than a fast bowler. The prime reason for this is because of the vast improvement in the way the pitches and grounds are covered there. In England, one can have some unpredictable rain and many cricket days are lost because of it. This resulted in most grounds improving the drainage and drying systems. The normally cold cloudy conditions are what every touring side dreads to face in England. The heavy weather conditions assist bowlers to swing the ball in the air as well as off the wicket. A batsman, therefore, requires a completely different skill set. A good technique and the ability to play late becomes important and therefore, many Asian batsmen find it difficult to adjust. This has been the cause of failure of many sides in the past. India will be praying for endless sunshine and sunny days.
The present Indian side has a good all-round feel to it. Their front-line batsmen are Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, K.L.Rahul, C.Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. A very difficult task for the tour selectors as one of them will need to be dropped in the final composition of the eleven. Both Murali and Shikhar have scored centuries in the last Test match whereas Rahul, apart from making a half-century against Afghanistan, had scored a masterly 199 runs against England in Chennai in 2016. Pujara over the years has been a consistent performer and with scores behind him, he has secured his position quite understandably. Rahane, apart from playing a very important inning in the last Test match against South Africa, was the successful Indian captain in the last Test match versus Afghanistan, in the absence of Kohli. For him to sit out would be sad, but the choice would have to be between Rahul and Rahane, both players who would walk into any other side in the world. Dinesh Karthik, due to the injury to Saha, seems to have cemented his place in the side. He will add to the top line batsmen as a batsman cum wicketkeeper. He was a success as an opener during India’s tour to England way back in 2007 and with his present batting form, he is just the player to fit the bill at number 6. The flamboyant Hardik Pandya is turning out to be a very useful all-rounder at number 7. He could be a handful for a tiring opposition bowling side in the lower batting order. Along with his medium-fast bowling, he will fill the third seamer's spot, alongside Ishant Sharma, as well as Umesh Yadav. Mohammed Shami will be a certainty if the wicket is green and lively. India will miss Bhuvneshwar Kumar and will hope that Jasprit Bumrah will recover soon from his injury. The selection of the spin attack will be the key to India’s success. R. Ashwin will be the frontline spinner and the toss-up for the final place would be between Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav. The England players have been mesmerized by Yadav’s googly and chinaman and this should give him the thumbs-up for his inclusion.
England, on the other hand, have not had a very successful few years as a Test side. They lost badly in the Ashes to Australia and to New Zealand thereafter on their last tour to both these countries. Although they managed to salvage a 1-1 draw against Pakistan in the Test series last month at home, they did not look very convincing as a team.
It seems that they are still in the process of building a side, especially with the retirement of many of their players recently. They, however, have two established players in Alastair Cook and Joe Root. The latter is one of the best batsmen in the world and with two centuries under his belt in the last two ODIs against India, he is set to establish his dominance in the longer version of the game as well. England have a good young bowling side, yet to make their mark on M.Wood, Curran, Plunkett, Woakes and David Willey but they will be relying on their two proven stalwarts, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad to take the lead. The battle between the best swing bowler in the world, Anderson and batsman Kohli will be interesting, especially as the English bowler did have the Indian star batsman in all sorts of trouble during the last tour in 2014. Kohli has a mission and that is to prove himself in England, as this is the only country that he has still to make his mark against. Years and age have taken a bit of a toll where Anderson is concerned, whereas Kohli looks to be in sublime form and in the peak of fitness. Time will tell who comes out the winner.
The return of Ben Stokes is a big plus for England. The best all-rounder in the world needs to be at the centre-stage of world cricket. He will need to play a major part for England to be successful, as in-form, he can change the course of a game. He does seem a bit rusty at present, but it is just one good performance that can change him entirely. The England team is not very flushed in the spin department to trouble India. They will rely on Moeen Ali, A.Rashid and D. Bess to take them through the series and hope for success. They have two wicketkeepers, both very accomplished batsmen in their fold as well. J. Bairstow is a very resolute batsman and J. Buttler has recently become their most consistent and successful scorer. England will rely on them to give them a fighting total. The English opening and middle order batting side have still to establish itself and the likes of D. Malan, Stoneman, J. Vince and Jennings have still to show more consistency.
India, the more established side, looks far better on paper than England and with the weather gods to bless them, they should be able to notch a series win. India’s 1971 victory at the Oval on Ganesh Chaturthi day is a memory that still is etched in every Indian cricket lover's mind. Ajit Wadekar and B.S. Chandrashekar on the balcony of the Oval pavilion, waving at the thousands of Indian fans who had assembled below, was a memorable sight. Virat Kohli holding the Pataudi Trophy aloft after the 5th Test at the Oval would be as fitting for the young Indian fans to remember for years to come.
India should come out victorious, after all, they are at present the best Test side in the world!
(The writer is a former India cricketer)