Rarely has a team as inexperienced as this left to play a Test series in England. Indeed, rarely has an Indian team played a five-Test series in England and those that did wouldn’t want to remember too much of it! In an era when epitaphs to Test cricket are written every year, this is almost an aberration. Like making a six-hour movie!
It will test everyone, that is what these games are meant to do, and the better team will win the series.
Occasionally, in three Test affairs, a team can win on fewer days and yet win the series. And two Test matches aren’t really a series anyway.
But over five, teams can come back, weaknesses discerned late in the third Test can still have a bearing on the series, the bowlers will need endurance to go with skill, the bench will be tested and weaknesses can be horribly exposed. Yes, the better team will always win the contest.
India don’t play too many of these. Sachin Tendulkar played a mere handful over 24 years, and those that are in it must revel in the experience.
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If you go down quickly, and are short of will, it can seem a very long summer and that is why this will test talent and pedigree, but also will power and fortitude. Cricketers will know themselves better by mid-August!
I am looking forward to see Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli bat as indeed I am to see Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami bowl. We tend to talk a lot more about batsmen, but taking 20 wickets overseas has been arduous in recent years.
In 2011, the bowlers fell by the wayside, like troops in summer in medieval warfare. And those who were left standing were noticeably friendlier through the air by the end.
It is to counter that that India have carried six new ball bowlers (wouldn’t it be great to be able to say “six fast bowlers”) on tour. I greatly fear this is a misplaced interpretation of strength in numbers. There are too many medium pacers and on mid-summer wickets they aren’t always much good.
Both Shami and Bhuvaneshwar swing the ball and that is a greater threat. You can’t read a lot into form in 20 overs cricket but, in spite of that, it is apparent that Bhuvaneshwar has grown and Shami has stumbled.
You got the feeling over the last three months that Shami was tired and with a break post the IPL, and some enforced breaks within it, he can no longer feel that way.
They must lead the attack, young shoulders carrying a heavy burden, but this is an opportunity for reputations to be made. Mid-August, yes, they will know themselves better by then! Hopefully, they will have grown as cricketers and as men.
So too with Kohli and Pujara, who come with sizeable reputations behind them. But these are reputations constructed on performances. Both have overseas centuries behind them and while it is tempting to think of them as the new three and four to take over from those of yore, that story must still wait before it can be told.
These five Tests will tell us whether that time is soon or distant but there is little doubt they must carry the batting in a land neither has played Test cricket in; especially given that India’s openers have suddenly been coated with fragility.
Admittedly, Shikhar Dhawan had a productive tour of New Zealand but since then, even if in limited overs cricket, he has struggled. As has Murali Vijay, and Gautam Gambhir would be a tempting alternative because you are guaranteed a genuine fight.
But it is Mahendra Singh Dhoni that we must focus on; Dhoni the leader and the decision maker. He will be aware that India isn’t the only team with issues confronting them. England have many too, deeper and more worrisome.
With a more potent bowling attack, India would have started favourites but Sri Lanka have shown that if you have intent, it can overcome pedigree.
Will Dhoni the captain back Dhoni the batsman at number six? It is an easy decision to take for those that don’t have to take it. But it will be an expression of intent if he does, it will tell England that India are here to win, not merely to sit back and watch the season unfold.
Dhoni is the cricketer to keep your eyes on this season.
Five Tests in 41 days. The expression “Test cricket” will truly find its definition in England. Watch it for more than just cricket.