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Friday, 16 November 2012

England on the Ropes

By the end of the second day at Ahmedabad, England seem to have walked straight into the trap laid by India, without making any significant effort to side step it.

Sounds like unfair criticism on the face of it, but let us examine the evidence so far.

England lost the toss and it was a crucial toss. It generally is in any test match, in any conditions. But consider the way England have gone about their business aside from that.

1. Team selection was in line with the standard model preferred by England, going in with four specialist bowlers, three seamers and one specialist spinner. Statistics and norm, not conditions, dictated the wisdom of that. It was precisely this mix that England were forced to change in their last two subcontinental series, having to field two specialist spinners in the second test of each of those series. Expect the same delayed wisdom in the current series.

2. With Sehwag and Gambhir going well against seam in the first session, Cook persisted with more seam than spin, giving away early momentum advantage to India. The ball was coming slowly off the pitch, and the batsman were grateful for the pace on the ball. Not taking away anything from Sehwag, conditions demanded better use of resources by Cook, rather than going with the "normal" seam heavy model.

3. That leads to the question of spinning options available to Cook. Given the side picked, Samit Patel and Kevin Pietersen could have been used much more. Maybe even Trott to take pace off. If nothing else, Swann in shorter spells with fewer scoring opportunities from the other end, may have proven even more effective.

4. Yes, there were fielding lapses, and they can not be criticised endlessly. The issue that glared was that the previously tested and reliable fielders in specialist positions were missing. I'd have gone with Cook at short-leg, Jimmy at slip, and so on. On flat batting tracks, typical of fresh test match pitches in the subcontinent, fielding lapses can prove expensive, as they did here.

5. Bowling consistent offside lines works well, creating opportunities in seaming conditions and on bouncy pitches. However the same line can offer easy width and scoring opportunities on slow low tracks. This was not worked out by the England seamers in the crucial early part of the innings, as they continued to bowl in their "best areas", ideal for seaming conditions.

6. Good bowling, with well thought out plans, disciplined lines and lengths creates trouble for batsmen, English or Indian. Swann bamboozled Kohli on day one with a beauty, as did Ashwin when going through Compton's gate on day two. Common aspect was the cauldron like pressure created by the bowler and the close fielders, allowed by the batsman only looking to keep everything out, rather than looking to rotate the strike.

Notably much of this hind-sight may only be worth considering for the second test.

So what can England do, if anything, to stay in this contest at Ahmedabad? It is the last issue that England need to focus on for the rest of this match. There will be the odd ball keeping low, the one that turns square and the one that bounces more than expected, so trying to keeping everything out defensively will not ensure it.

The best way forward for England at Ahmedabad is to keep the scoreboard ticking with one's and two's. Sounds easier than it is, but instead of wondering about the pitch or getting bogged down by their track record against spin, the English batsmen would be best advised to keep seeking comfort at the non-strikers end. Best place to be batting if you want to occupy the crease for long. Precisely what England need to do now, occupy the crease for long.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

England Back to the Wall

England are up against a well rested and eager Indian side on home turf. They start the test series in Ahmedabad on what will undoubtedly be a slow low turner, left to bake without covers in the past few days.

The humiliation of India in the English summer of 2011 still fresh in the minds of several Indian stalwarts. This is a grudge series, make no mistake. Dhoni's press interviews highlight the respect that teams must accord to their oppositions, something the Indians missed in the England last year.

The odds are stacked against England. Never mind the past track record or the time spent on the crease in the warm up games, nothing will matter when the first ball is bowled at Ahmedabad. The challenge for the English batting line up will be truly testing.

The last two tours of the subcontinent by England, against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, have been rather forgettable. Much tougher for them to digest was the recent plastering on home soil at the hands of the South Africans. Not only dis the Proteas displace England at the top spot, Graeme Smith claimed his third England skipper, when Andrew Strauss retired after the series, leaving Alistair Cook in-charge. Effectively England go into this series certainly a lot less confident than at any point in the past 18 months.

The relative absence of spin in the tour warm up games has left England wondering what to make of their acclimatisation process. While much of the talk is about spin, reverse swing will play a key role in this series. The series could well be the perfect sign off for Zaheer Khan. The combination of R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha will exert real pressure, the moment the shine is off. Yuvraj Singh has made a big comeback, in more ways than one, after a poor test series down under. He will be an added slow bowling option for Dhoni, to keep attacking.

Sachin Tendulkar, M S Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag will want to re-assert themselves on the English bowlers. The purple patch of Virat Kohli, if it continues, the Indian number three will make England pay in familiar conditions.

England have Kevin Pietersen, back and in good nick, debutant Nick Compton, skipper Alistair Cook and dependable Jonathan Trott, all looking to make the backbone of the batting line up. I suspect Ian Bell and Samit Patel will struggle in the test series. Key to playing long innings, as it always is in the sub-continent, the English batsmen will have to keep rotating the strike, avoiding pressure build up.

Test match cricket is about taking 20 opposition wickets, and in this series India look like the team better equipped to do so. Would it be a 4-0 whitewash? Maybe not, but I'm thinking 3-0.

The DRS will come up in conversation at least twice in each session of play. That is one prediction that you can bank on.

What do you think?

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