For touring sides India represents the final frontier.
Teams arrive full of hope and generally they depart, like so many of their predecessors, unable to unravel the mystery of winning cricket matches there. Since David Gower's England team managed to overcome the odds and win 2-1 in the winter of 1984-85, India have played 38 home series and have been beaten only by Pakistan, two years later; by South Africa in 1999-2000 in what was only a two-match series; and by Australia in 2004-05. Of 107 matches, discounting those in a one-off Asia Cup Test tournament, India have won 51 and lost just 17. It is a considerable record of resilience.
And now England must go there for a four-Test series in November and December. They will do so having been toppled from their perch at the top of the rankings by South Africa, their slide a gradual one in the year since they trounced India at home to reach that pinnacle. But while the bowling has largely held up, the batting has been found wanting consistently, a general decline for which the batting coach, Graham Gooch, will have to answer sooner or later. That is compounded now by the retirement of Andrew Strauss and the continuing absence of Kevin Pietersen, a total of 42 Test match hundreds split precisely between the pair, a deal of experience for which to compensate.
Replacements for these two batsmen have been foremost on the selectorial agenda, but that particular band of brothers will have given thought to the manner in which sides successful in India have gone about their task, and also of their own strategy. India is one country where it is possible to select cricketers who possess very specific skills, as, for example Tony Greig did for his triumphant 1976-7 tour, when he opted for, as his reserve keeper, Roger Tolchard, iron-handed but a quicksilver batsman, rather than the brilliant gloveman Bob Taylor on the grounds that the reserve scarcely ever gets a call-up and might prove valuable as a batsman. It proved precisely that. England will have the same issue now.
The absence of Pietersen does alter the dynamic of the selection. Had he been there, a strong case could have been made for promoting Jonathan Trott, their emergency opener, to that position full time, and moving Ian Bell to No3, in as much as it would not significantly alter the middle order. Now, though, they would not want a fragile engine room.
A new opener to accompany Alastair Cook, with a long-term as well as immediate view, has to be the way. Candidates would seem to include Joe Root, Michael Carberry, Varun Chopra and Nick Compton. Of these, Compton, after a prolific summer in which he showed real tenacity at the crease, sustained an injury that has taken the spotlight off, and Carberry, who had one Test in Bangladesh, is almost 32 now and said to be less comfortable against spin, of which there is sure to be a plethora. Having left Essex, Chopra has scored heavily for county champions Warwickshire over the past two seasons, and has worked on his game in India.
Root, though only 21, has been a batsman to come through the system, including the Lions, and has done valuable work on his batting against spin with the Academy lead coach Graham Thorpe, including spells in Pune. He made an impressive century for the Lions against the West Indies in May, and natural progression suggests he could fill the vacancy.
Noises from India already suggest that MS Dhoni is after slow turners, although he should be careful for what he wishes. India has always been like that but on the rare occasions they have come unstuck it has been against pace and spin combined.
England may not veer far from their default plan of three seamers plus Graeme Swann as they played when they won in Colombo, rather than two seamers and two spinners – Swann and Monty Panesar – that operated in Galle. Those two spinners together with three seamers just leaves too long a tail. So there could be a place for Samit Patel once more, a competent player against spin, to bat at six or seven. Mindful of Swann's elbow condition, Tredwell could replace Panesar.
Eoin Morgan's retention on a full central contract is indicative of the desire to rehabilitate his Test match career and he does seem to have eradicated the curious bobbing that had crept into his game. It could be him, rather than Jonny Bairstow, James Taylor or Ravi Bopara whose international future is on the line once more, who makes the Test XI. If batting is a mental process as much as technical, then currently Bopara is in a mess, not helped by his domestic issues. But he is a considerably better player than his current travails suggest, one of the better players of spin, and ought to go instead of Taylor.
Possible squad: Cook, Trott, Bell, Morgan, Prior, Bairstow, Bopara, Patel, Root, Swann, Tredwell or Panesar, Broad, Finn, Anderson, Onions, Bresnan.
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