It is not often that an England team takes the lead in a Test series in India and little wonder then that batting coach Graham Gooch has hailed it as a "monumental achievement". Ignoring the 2-0 verdict the first England team notched up in 1933-34 against India which were then the "babes" of international cricket there have been just two instances of an England team taking the lead and then going on to win the series.
Tony Greig’s squad in 1976-77 in fact is the only visiting team to win the first three Tests of a series in India on their way to winning it 3-1 and then David Gower’s squad eight years later did an encore by taking a 2-1 lead and going on to win the series by the same margin.
In both cases the result was unexpected for while India have almost always been unbeatable at home the England teams had come over following heavy reverses at the hands of West Indies. If Greig’s team had a first so it was too with Gower’s squad – they are the only visiting side to win a series in India after being 1-0 down.
Now Alastair Cook’s squad is within a match of emulating the feat notched up by Gower’s team. It is enough if they draw the final game at Nagpur and the manner in which they have performed they will be the favourites on the eve of the Test.
It is a case of the hunter becoming the hunted for they were the underdogs when the contest commenced and a series triumph looked Mission Impossible after they had lost the first Test. Also the parallel with the two other teams continues for England came over to India having surrendered the No 1 spot following a series loss to South Africa at home.
Like many of their predecessors the touring England squad is the strongest they can muster at the moment. It wasn’t always so. The first few England teams to visit India were quite often second string sides in the absence of the top players.
It is interesting to run through a list of England greats who never played a Test in India. These include Wally Hammond, Patsy Hendren, Maurice Leyland, Les Ames, Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Godfrey Evans, Jim Laker, Alec Bedser, Fred Trueman, Peter May, Ray Illingworth, John Snow and Basil D’Oliveria.
Uncomfortable travel arrangements, dodgy hotel accommodation, the intense heat, the dead wickets and the weakness of the opposition did not make a tour of India attractive in the formative years. From the 70s however the attitude changed as the Indian teams provided stronger opposition, the facilities improved, the surfaces underwent a change though of course little could be done about the weather.
And in the last three decades, first with the players not having the option of picking and choosing the tours and with India emerging as an attractive proposition thanks to the money involved, the best players have willingly come over. Also the players have accepted the fact that till they do well in India a cricketer’s education is not complete.
Some of the England teams that have visited India have been fairly strong and well balanced outfits and it is safe to say that Cook’s tourists are up with the best of them. Even in the absence of the greats mentioned England has always been an attractive batting side.
Players such as Tom Graveney, Ted Dexter, Ken Barrington, Colin Cowdrey, Geoff Pullar, Dennis Amiss, Keith Fletcher, Tony Greig, Alan Knott, Geoff Boycott, Ian Botham. Mike Gatting, Graham Gooch, Grame Hick, Graham Thorpe, Marcus Trescothick, Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan, Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell have provided immeasurable moments of joy.
But perhaps even more impressive has been the bowling. Given the fact that the England attack is based on pace – not the most potent weapon on Indian surfaces – the bowlers have stuck it out in the heat to pull off some splendid performances.
Geoff Arnold, Chris Old, John Lever, Bob Willis, Ian Botham, Neil Foster, Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff have bent their backs and put in that little extra effort to extract pace and bounce from generally unhelpful surfaces. But the spinners too led by the likes of Hedley Verity, Roy Tattersall, Tony Lock, David Allen, Fred Titmus and Derek Underwood have frequently matched the illustrious Indian counterparts
Judged by any yardstick the present England squad would rank favourably with the best that has visited India and that is likely to be the final assessment whatever happens at Nagpur. Their foremost asset would be the captain who as batsman and leader has perhaps been unexcelled. He heads a strong batting cast which is an ideal blend of stonewallers and swashbucklers, substance and style.
Matt Prior is a worthy successor to the likes of Alan Knott and Bob Taylor while the bowling can hold its own against the best with pace and spin having a share of the spoils. It could well be the most balanced bowling attack among all England sides to visit India.
They have also endeared themselves to the Indian cricketing public by saying and doing the right things none more so than the captain himself who is easily the most charismatic England captain in India since Greig all of 36 years ago.