• India v England, 1st Test, Ahmedabad

England ready to reverse decline

George Dobell
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Alastair Cook's fielding at first slip could be one of England's biggest worry © Getty Images
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Like two former champion heavyweights now consigned to the undercard, India and England come into this series desperate to recapture former glories.

Both have declined sharply since respectively attaining the No. 1 Test ranking and, while South Africa and Australia have taken top billing, they find themselves at a crossroads: win this series and they earn another shot at the big time; lose and they face some awkward questions.

The phoney war, at least, is over. After three weeks in India and a great deal more spin off the pitch than on it, England are as ready as they will ever be to face what is, arguably, the biggest challenge in the sport: beating India in India.

At first glance, the series should not be close. India are unbeaten at home in eight years; England have not won a series in India for 28 years and, since then, have only won one of 11 Tests. England's record against spin is hardly promising, either.

Yet, despite all that, England may never have a better opportunity to beat India in India. It is not just that India are a side in transition - they have already lost VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid - but the form and fitness of several of the remaining players is under scrutiny.

There is also more pressure on India. Victory is not just expected of them; it is demanded. Their pride is built upon their strong home record. If England are not the pushover some are expecting then there will be those in the Indian camp - not least their coach, Duncan Fletcher - peering over their shoulders nervously.

Perhaps that explains why India have taken some remarkable risks in the run-up to this series. The policy of denying England access to high-quality spin or turning wickets does mean that England will go into the Test lacking match practice in one key part of the game, but it has also allowed them the chance to gain form and confidence. Every one of the top seven has passed 50 at least once.

India also appear to have taken a risk with the pitch for the Ahmedabad Test. It is not just that it is relaid - and relaying a Test pitch two months before a game means no-one can predict how it will play - but that it has been relaid with a higher proportion of sand and a more brittle type of clay. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that India expect it to break up and offer substantial assistance to the spinners sooner rather than later.

This England team has made something of a habit of breaking barriers. They won the World T20, they won in Australia. Winning in India is as difficult but they can do it.

But what if England set a challenging first innings total and utilise the crumbling pitch when they bowl? What if England's seamers gain as much from the surface as India's spinners? What if Swann enjoys the best of the conditions? India's tactics are not those of a side that truly believes in its own ability. If they did, they would surely prepare the best possible cricketing surface and back themselves to prevail.

History tends not to recall subtleties. Accepted wisdom tells us that England were crushed in the UAE and thrashed by South Africa, but that is not the full story. They might, should even, have beaten Pakistan had they not capitulated so feebly against spin - they were set just 145 in the second Test and dismissed Pakistan out for less than 100 in the third.

Similarly, they went into the final session of the second and third Tests against South Africa with potentially a winning positions. For all the criticism they have attracted of late, it is worth remembering that if they win this series handsomely and Australia defeat South Africa, England will return to No. 1 in the Test rankings. They have not fallen so far as some suggest.

England have suffered one major reverse on this tour. The loss of Steven Finn, by some distance the quickest bowler on either side, deprives England of a key method of attack. While he should be back to full fitness for the second Test in Mumbai, England will be reliant on the subtler skills of Tim Bresnan in the meantime. But it bodes well for them that towards the end of the final warm-up game, Bresnan appeared to have recovered both his nip and his ability to reverse swing the ball.

The crux of the series, though, remains England's ability to play spin. If they do not improve substantially on their efforts in the UAE, they will be beaten. While they went into that series complacent and under prepared, they go into this one focused and informed.

While, in the long term, they will need to review their policy - albeit a policy they will not admit to having - of not allowing "mystery" spin in English domestic cricket and, perhaps, look at the surfaces Championship games are played upon if they are really to master their spin issues, they are as well prepared as any England touring party to India has been. As Alastair Cook put it: "We're ready."

There are other concerns. There is the catching, there is Stuart Broad's lack of potency in the series against South Africa and there is the doubt about the strength of the renewed team spirit. Of all those issues it is the slip catching that should provoke most anxiety. Cook, for his many admirable qualities, has rarely looked assured in the cordon and the decision to place him at first slip is a mistake.

This England team has made something of a habit of breaking down barriers. In early 2010 they became the first England side to win a global limited-overs trophy - the World T20 in the Caribbean - and, less than a year later, they became the first England side to win in Australia for more than two decades.

Winning in India is just as difficult. But they can do it.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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