Thursday, July 21, 2011

2000, 2001, 2003 AND 2004

Four Test matches between the No. 1 and No. 3 Test playing teams in the world. The prospect is exciting as it is, but the romance is magnified when you consider the number 2000!

Test cricket will grow up to become 2000 matches old in a little more than 12 and a half hours from now. The Anglo-Indian Test rivalry (never as highly celebrated and talked of as it has been over the last two weeks) will grow up to become 100 matches old. Indian coach Duncan Fletcher will attend his 100th Test match as a Head Coach... 96 of which were in the role of the English Cricket Team Coach!

And then there is the anticipation of Sachin Tendulkar's 100th international century - a remarkable achievement when it comes (though 99 is no less remarkable on its own either)! However, this post is a preview to the England v. India Test series that begins at Lord's, London tomorrow (which is why the title of the post extends till 2004, and does not stop at 2000; by the way, Test no. 2002 will be between Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in early August)... so I will keep the anticipation of this landmark out of it from hereon.

The teams first -

The hosts are fairly decided on their combination for the game tomorrow. The only spot up for grabs is of the third pacer... and the fight is between the off-colour Stuart Broad and the coming-back-from-an-injury-break Tim Bresnan. Out of the two, I am fairly certain that Stuart Broad is going to feature tomorrow, simply because of the talks of continuity in England's high cricketing circles as well as Broad's leadership role in the team. Add to it the fact that Bresnan is returning from an injury lay-off, I think the English team management would prefer to go for Broad rather than the former.

As far as the visitors are concerned, there are a few small question marks. The biggest one (relatively speaking) of these is the spot of the third pacer (just like the hosts). Some people are suggesting Sreesanth will be picked to accompany Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, others say (with reason) that Praveen Kumar would be a better choice.

Putting it simply, Praveen Kumar can be looked upon as a slower and more-controlled version of Sreesanth. While Praveen Kumar can generate similarly prodigious swing and with greater consistency and control than Sreesanth, it is also quite clear that he will never be able to produce balls such as the one that accounted for Kallis (yes, that snorter) in the Boxing Day Test at Durban 2010! Sometimes, if the game is tight and drifting away, those one-off plays decide the outcome! Nevertheless, if I were asked to pick my squad, Praveen Kumar might just marginally win the race for me. I would not want to gamble... atleast not in the 1st Test, which has always been India's Achilles heal. After Lord's, maybe I could reconsider.

The second question, the answer to which has been all but found, is the spot of India's No. 6 batsman. Raina has his problems against short balls and is almost devoid of backfoot play. England know that and will be ready to unleash Tremlett and Broad / Bresnan when he arrives to the crease. But what counts in favour of Raina is that in recent times, he has shown fight! Be it the crucial knock against Australia in the quarter-finals of the World Cup or through out the West Indies tour, Raina has impressed most observers. My respect for him has never been as high as it is at this moment in time. All in all, it means that Yuvraj Singh might just have to wait in the wings for some more time!

However, the third question, based on a slightly far-fetched idea, might reduce Yuvraj Singh's wait! There has been some talk of not using Abhinav Mukund as the opener and asking Rahul Dravid to open instead. In such a scenario, Yuvraj Singh can be accommodated at No. 5 / No. 6. I have a couple of issues with this idea. One, this would put two of India's main middle order batsmen in an uncomfortable situation - Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman (who will have to bat at No. 3). Yes, Dravid has opened before and might well have to come in at 10 for 1, but asking him to open will put him in a zone of discomfort. He prefers being at No. 3 rather than No. 1 or No. 2, and I would rather have him continue at that place. Laxman too has played well at No. 3 (where he scored that 281), but to push him up there at such short notice would be sacrilege. Two, India has tried this ploy of opening with Dravid to accommodate Yuvraj once before - Australia tour of 2007/08. It was a dismal failure. For me, it's now a case of once bitten twice shy!

Comparing the two teams, they look very similar on paper. The element that could have separated the two teams is nursing a shoulder injury and will not be available for a minimum of 2 Tests. I do not want to talk about how India will miss Sehwag, because everyone has talked about it, every knows about it, everyone has an opinion about it, and for once, hardly anyone has an opinion contrary to the popular one!

As a result, England gain significant advantage in the opening combination. Strauss may have been out of form in recent times, but his contribution has been more than made up for by his vice-captain and opening partner Alastair Cook. He is having the time of his life, and will be India's biggest threat at the top. As for India, Gautam Gambhir (returning from an injury himself) will now have to show the true worth of his leadership role in the team by guiding a young Abhinav Mukund at this big stage. Though Gambhir has moved on to captaining India in some ODIs, he has never commanded a big leadership role in the Test side, mainly due to the presence of some high-profile seniors. Now is the time to take on that role more seriously, and bring out his best... because in England, there is no doubt that he will be tested.

While the Indian middle order looks more impressive on paper, the English middle order is about on par when it comes to form. Trott is in a small lean phase, but he has been a run machine. Pietersen seems to be coming out of his lean phase that he encountered a year or so ago. Bell is in tremendous form himself, and Morgan is ready too. For India, Dravid is showing positive signs again and though Sachin is making a comeback to cricket after some break, he is expected to continue his golden run of 2010. Laxman is playing as well as he ever has and Raina, as I have mentioned, is showing the fight in him. In the keeper-batsman's role, Prior trumps Dhoni. The latter has not been able to play a Test innings of great significance for quite some time now (about 5 Tests).

As we come to the bowling, it gets interesting. Anderson and Zaheer are the main men and leaders of the attack. Skill-wise, they are similar. Zaheer is slightly more experienced of the two, but his fitness will be in question. Tremlett and Ishant Sharma are similar back-of-the-length bowlers who get good bounce due to their height. Both have shown a lot of promise in the recent past. Broad / Bresnan make the English pace attack a tad bit uni-dimensional... all right arm pacers - one swing bowler and two hit-the-deck-hard bowlers. With Praveen / Sreesanth, India's attack has more variety - one left arm swing bowler, one right arm swing bowler and one hit-the-deck-hard bowler. The attack is completed by off-spinners. Swann is currently the best spinner is the world, but he will be up against batsmen who play spin better than any other middle order in any team, arguably in any era! Harbhajan has, in recent times, been subject to immense criticism, but to his advantage will be the fact that he will be bowling to batsmen who are not entirely comfortable against spin.

There are shower forecasts on all five days of the Lord's Test. So even if they are scattered showers, I think it will be safe to assume a draw would be the most probable outcome there, unless we witness a batting collapse. India, slow starters on away tours, will have to guard against such a collapse.

The second Test is to be played at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. This was where India sealed the only result of their previous tour to win the series 1-0. A result is expected here too... and though most people think that the bowlers will decide the result here, I believe the contrary. In my opinion, the batsmen who guard their wicket the best will win here. The bowlers will have help almost all through. So the onus will be on the batting units to do that extra bit.

Before the Third Test at Edgbaston, India will play a two-day practice match against Northamptonshire. It will give a chance for reassessment of strategies, testing bench strength and recovering niggles. Therefore, I expect the best contest of this series to take place at Edgbaston, Birmingham (the 2003rd Test match, all the hype around the 2000th notwithstanding)... and yes, I expect a result here too.

A lot of people, including some English cricket followers, say that The Oval Test will result in a draw, making it two out of two draws in London. However, if Sehwag gets into the team and acclimatises himself by then, I wouldn't be surprised to see a result there too. With Sehwag's inclusion, the 'time factor' in a Test match has a different context attached to it, whether or not he clicks. If you don't believe me, ask Graeme Smith in the context of Cape Town 2011!

Now don't ask me to predict a series result. Since I have predicted three match results, the most likely scenario would be 2-1 either way. I would be very surprised if it goes 3-0 one way or the other!

In the build-up to this series, I have been surprised by the fact that there has been very little comparison drawn to this tour with the South African tour late last year. Or maybe there have been enough parallels drawn, but I expected more!

For one, both series' have put India's title as No. 1 Test team in the world on line. After all, a 2-0 or a 3-1 win for England will propel them to the top! Apart from that, India goes in to the First Tests not well acclimatised, though we did have the luxury of a tour match this time round! India will yet again be facing a bowling attack that can be considered superior to theirs in conditions of the hosts. The batting units of both the hosts are similar and in form too. Both hosts want to test the Indian batting of fast surfaces. And as if all this were not enough, the captains of both the hosts are left-handed openers, whom Zaheer Khan would love to bowl at!

However, unlike the result in South Africa, I am hoping for an Indian victory over here. I don't know how many will agree, but I think the English in England are a slightly easier prospect than the South Africans in South Africa! The added experience of having won the Test series on their previous tour here should help the Indians along. England, on the other hand, have not beaten India in a Test series since 1996 - the same series where Ganguly and Dravid famously debuted together.

So as the Test match no. 2000 descends upon us tomorrow, with an equally-enticing prospect of Tests no. 2001, 2003 and 2004, I am just delighted to be amongst those who will have the privilege of watching it live. I may well get the chance to watch the 3000th and maybe even the 4000th, but the first milestone is always the most special one. And given the surroundings and the setup of the 2000th, it will be hard for the future 1000s to beat this one. Lord's, we are waiting...

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