I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to the Test series starting in India tomorrow.
It’s that time of year again: England’s winter tour to somewhere a damn sight warmer than the Midlands, while you shiver on your couch in the early hours tanked up on Red Bull and espresso, eyes misted over with sleep and hands shaking with an excess of caffeine and excitement – or despair, depending on how bad England’s batting collapse is.
There’s been the hype, the trash-talk and the warning shots across the bow from both sides; sensibilities have already been ruffled and contretemps between fans have carried a tinge of the tetchy. Sabers have been rattled and the warfare – up till now – has been psychological. Predictions have been ping-ponged back and forth. England will be hammered; India are at that transition period where they’re ripe for the picking. Ravichandran Ashwin has a mystery ball; Ravichandran Ashwin is no Saeed Ajmal. England will miss injured fast bowler Steven Finn as he is the only man who can bang the ball in, making full use of his height; the bounce will be so low so he’d be useless anyway.
Even the BCCI’s nonsense over broadcasting and image rights has a comforting inevitability about it – though maybe not for the Sky team, who will have to make do with commentating along to the BCCI feed on a television in a studio in Isleworth. It’s not ideal, but then a stream of commentary delivered through the medium of rap over a diorama of plasticene men with matchsticks for bats would still be preferable to the witterings of Ravi Shastri.
The overall consensus seems to be that India have this series in the bag, but, to be honest, after the recent barrage of T20, I just want to see some good, hard-fought Test cricket. Yes, the pitches will be deader than roadkill and twice as flat – at least until days 4 and 5, when cracks that would put the Marianas Trench to shame should start appearing – so batting first and piling up a massive first innings score will be on the minds of both captains.
There’s been so much talk of “the team” recently, that it’s easy to forget that it’s individuals who light up a stage.
Kevin Pietersen has been successfully “reintegrated” into the team, with the likes of Anderson and Broad mouthing the expected “we need to all move on and let bygones be bygones” platitudes, perhaps (hopefully) having come to the realization that for disparate personalities to rub along together requires some compromise; in which case, welcome to the real world. It’s good that that particular farrago is over and done with, and if some electronics boffin could rig me up to an alarm system that wakes me up when KP comes in to bat I’d be mighty grateful. England’s triumvirate of doughty plodders, Cook, Compton and Trott, will hopefully by then have laid a solid platform on which Pietersen can strut his stuff.
There was a great mention on Twitter the other day that Pietersen’s walk out to the middle in England’s final warm-up match was greeted with the cheering of children massed round the boundary. Ask them what they think of “team unity” and what should happen when “an individual transgresses” in terms of the “fabric of our society” and you’d no doubt get a blank look in response. Like me – like many of us, I suspect – their love of cricket is in large part based on watching players like him get runs.
If there is any player in the Indian team who can lay claim to being the opposition’s version of Pietersen, it is Virat Kohli. Young, outrageously talented and with fine Test centuries against Australia and New Zealand under his belt, he is every inch the modern batsman. Like Pietersen he can be a handful off the field; like Pietersen he can dominate a bowling attack and is exhilarating to watch when his dander is up. With this likely to be Sachin Tendulkar’s last series, Kohli could very well turn out to be the designated keeper of India’s flame.
Speaking of entertainers, it will be good to see Yuvraj Singh back. The man Kevin Pietersen refers to affectionately as “Pie-chucker” will return for his first Test since recovering from a rare form of lung cancer, and the fact he has already taken Pietersen’s wicket in the first warm-up game with his innocuous left-arm spin almost guarantees the fact he will be brought on to bowl at Ahmedabad as soon as KP comes to the crease. Cricket may be India’s religion, but Yuvraj’s illness was a timely reminder that it is, after all, still just a game. That he is now back in the game, as it were, is a wonderful story.
Aside from these headline grabbers there’ll be no doubt much to watch and mull over over the next few weeks. Alastair Cook’s captaincy will be tested. It may be premature to say he does not have the charisma or tactical nous of more illustrious international counterparts such as Graeme Smith, Michael Clarke, Mahela Jayawardene or even Darren Sammy, but then I didn’t see him becoming a success as ODI captain either. But this will be a trial by fire in the Indian crucible.
England entrusting Samit Patel with the number 6 spot is also good to see, as he was one of the few players who emerged from England’s woeful WT20 campaign with any credit; his ability to get runs against spin as well as provide back-up to Graeme Swann with the ball are the reasons he has been picked ahead of Jonny Bairstow, who will no doubt get his chance when Ian Bell flies home before the second Test to be at the birth of his first child.
On the Indian side, I’ll be interested to see how Cheteshwar Pujara goes when he bats at 3, not having seen very much of him. I’ve seen slightly more of their young quick, Umesh Yadav, and while he is yet inexperienced, there’s undoubted potential as well as pace there.
If I were forced to predict the result of this first Test I’d have to say the likeliest outcome will be a draw. But we will certainly have a better idea of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams by the end of it – as well as being, through a succession of early mornings (or late nights), a damn sight more tired. But when there’s the prospect of a feast in store, you don’t need sleep to sustain you.