Sunil Gavaskar is hoping for a 4-0 series triumph for India against the visiting England team, but while that is typical of the man, Dhoni’s “boys” will have to work that much harder to oblige the legend, though one suspects that the pitches for the four Tests could make the task somewhat easier. After all, Dhoni has been quite vocal about the need to have spinning tracks for home series and it will be no surprise if none of the Tests last five days.
The ploy to keep top-flight spinners out of tour games prior to the first Test in Ahmedabad, suggests that the slow bowlers will dictate the exchanges. Also, should Dhoni get the type of pitches he wants, then the England batsmen will have their task cut out playing the likes of Ashwin, Harbhajan and Ojha.
Earlier this year, Ashwin and Ojha between them took 31 of the 40 New Zealand wickets as the Kiwis were humbled 2-0 in the two-Test series played in Hyderabad and Bangalore. However, England certainly have better batsmen though it remains to be seen whether they will be able to handle the Indian spinners any differently.
Thus, the fate of the series hinge on how well England batsmen play the spinners on pitches that will afford turn and some bounce from day one itself. It may not make for pretty sight, but after losing eight Tests in England and Australia last year, Dhoni would be only keen to give back as good as he and his mates got during those two disastrous tours.
From England’s perspective, the preparations since arriving in India well in advance have not exactly gone according to plans. Not getting to face a quality spinner in the three warm-up games, besides doubts over Finn’s fitness and the chances are that he might sit out the first Test.
However, England would be banking a lot on their lead off-spinner Swann who has come on nicely as one of the top slow bowlers in World cricket with Samit Patel, rather than Panesar, as a foil. That Patel is a better batsman than the Sardar could well swing the vote in his favour.
Even if Dhoni gets the kind of turners he has been advocating, a series win cannot be taken for granted. The fact is that the current Indian squad has issues that have not been addressed by the selectors and something that England could expose.
At the top of the order, neither Gambhir nor Sehwag evoke confidence given their form over the past couple of years. Never mind that Sehwag slammed a hundred in a recent Ranji game, but the point is that he and Gambhir have been struggling to score at the highest level. Under the circumstances, their continued presence in the squad is due to their reputations than form.
Likewise, Tendulkar has not exactly set the grounds alight in the past year, and like Sehwag, warmed up for the England series with a century in the Ranji game against Railways. Only in flashes has Tendulkar provided glimpses of his genius and the New Zealand bowlers repeatedly exposed the chinks in his armour that seem to be growing wider by the day.
Further, Yuvraj is coming off an ailment and his double century in a recent first-class game notwithstanding, there is a question mark over his match-fitness. After all, playing a five-day Test is vastly different from domestic cricket given the attendant pressure and expectation. It is to be hoped that Yuvraj will rise to the occasion and prove his detractors wrong.
Down the list, Zaheer Khan has been struggling to maintain his fitness and certainly, has to work that much harder to stay uninjured. There is some fragility about Zaheer as is the case with most fast bowlers these days that does not guarantee his availability for all the four Tests to be played back to back with hardly any time to recover from even niggles, much less an injury.
Thus, with a cloud over five top players, there is bound to be pressure on the others to deliver. Fortunately, Pujara enjoyed a good series against New Zealand and is expected to ride on the form to cement his position in the playing eleven while Dhoni the batsman is always iffy in Tests.
Dhoni will also have to make a tough call on the playing eleven, especially the bowling composition that could influence the outcome. With Sehwag, Gambhir, Kohli, Tendulkar, Pujara, Yuvraj and Dhoni himself filling seven batsmen’s slots, getting the right bowling combination will be critical to India’s chances. Zaheer and either Ishant or Umesh Yadav will no doubt be the first choice to handle the new ball, but the toss up will be between Harbhajan and Ojha to partner Ashwin as the spin combo.
Playing three spinners will be possible only at the cost of a batsman and in which case, Dhoni will have take a call between Pujara and Yuvraj. Either way, it will be a tough choice to make.
On paper, India look the better team, but unlike the Kiwis, England will be no push-overs. I expect a close contest that could well be decided by spinners rather than batsmen despite all the hype over Tendulkar and Pietersen.