But, says Jonathan Davidson, a new-look England must overcome familiar challenges in India.
After what has been an outstanding year for British sport, Alastair Cook will be looking to restore some pride in the Three Lions of English cricket. Having lost the coveted ICC Number One Test Ranking and one of their most successful captains over the summer, the England team face a serious challenge in a four-match Test series against India.
Though many England fans are excited by the potential for witty comparisons of the ability to conquer Australia shared between the incumbent Test captain and a famous British sailor, Cook must first overcome an India team seeking revenge for the 4-0 whitewash in 2011. Even at this early stage, this series could prove pivotal in Cook’s captaincy: will Cook live in the shadows of his predecessor or rejuvenate a stalling England team?
Cook – a levelled character who has been groomed for the Test captaincy – will look to banish certain myths concerning his team. Has Kevin Pietersen’s ‘reintegration’ to the team actually dispelled any internal discord? Can England’s batsmen finally adapt to subcontinental pitches? Though Cook did gain experience of the Test captaincy during the tour of Bangladesh in 2010, India will provide a far sterner test and a steep learning curve. And yet victory in India would dispel any doubts over Cook’s regime.
England’s preparations, however, have been far from ideal. Pace bowler Steven Finn will almost certainly miss the first Test after picking up a thigh strain in a warm-up match against India A, whilst there are worries over Stuart Broad’s fitness who was taken for a scan o
n a heel injury picked up in the second warm-up match against Mumbai A. Nonetheless, the England camp would still have confidence in playing a two-man pace attack of Jimmy Anderson and Tim Bresnan, who both possess the ability to reverse-swing the ball on the notoriously flat pitches of the subcontinent that are known to favour spin bowlers. Injuries to Broad and Finn could also provide an opportunity for the returning Graham Onions whose injuries have stunted a promising Test career.
Indeed, it is England’s batsmen who remain the greatest cause for concern. In a relatively inexperienced batting order, responsibility will lie in the middle order with Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, who both have well-documented problems with spin bowling. Whoever should succeed Andrew Strauss as Cook’s opening partner will face deep scrutiny from the Indian attack. Nick Compton – the early favourite to replace Strauss – scored only 0 and 1 in his first two innings of the tour, whilst the challenge of facing India could have come just too soon for 21-year-old Joe Root. The Indians will be eager to exploit such inexperience.
Inevitably, attention will be focused upon Pietersen who possess an invaluable familiarity with Indian pitches after his exploits in the IPL. But Pietersen’s inclusion in the England team will be crucial to any success. In Pietersen – England’s most aggressive and captivating player – the England batsmen have an example of how to unsettle the Indian spinners. Moreover, Pietersen’s reintegration to the team appears to be working, with teammates, including James Anderson and Graeme Swan
n, publicly welcoming his return (though whether this is out genuine enthusiasm or sheer desperation remains to be seen).
Success in India could also propel the careers of the emerging English batsmen. Though there are concerns over Strauss’s replacement, the flat wickets of India could provide a smooth integration into the Test arena for Compton or Root. Equally, both Jonny Bairstow and Samit Patel have showed signs of promise in warm-up matches. Bairstow and Patel – who have scored 114 and 105 respectively on the tour – will both seek to consolidate places within the lower order, which has failed to find a true replacement for the grit of Paul Collingwood.
There is no lack of incentives for the English team. Though the challenge for England is great, the rewards will be even greater. The coming series may lack the glamour of an Ashes series or a battle to be World Number One, but is just as important. The coming series could be career defining for several English cricketers.