England pacemen must hit the ground running


Virender Sehwag, Test cricket’s fastest-scoring batsman, will not be playing. Nor will Sir Donald Bradman be able to attend, although in spirit he will be keeping an eagle eye open in the MCC committee room. Otherwise, if the weather is fine and the Indians are not too rusty, the occasion promises to display all that is grandest about the sport.
England will provide a team who are great in their teamwork if they play as they did in Australia last winter. More than the sum of their very good parts, England will topple India at the head of the ICC Test rankings if they win by a margin of two matches or more — and this will be the first time England have reached this notional summit since the system was started a decade ago. India will provide great players, even though Sehwag will not have recovered from a shoulder operation before the second half of this four-Test series. Sachin Tendulkar is an all-time great for staying at the top for so long.
There is only one serious omission from his cv: in his four Tests at Lord’s he has not got beyond 37. A century would not only bring up his 100 international hundreds but prove he can perform when the most critical eyes are upon him. Rahul Dravid has a great technique: if MCC update their coaching book, it would be between Dravid, Jacques Kallis and Ian Bell to illustrate the right-handed strokes. And of great, match-winning, series-turning innings, VVS Laxman has played the most in modern times.
All the more reason therefore that England have to hit India hard at Lord’s and Trent Bridge, the ground that most favours their pace bowlers, and go 2-0 up.
The tourists are traditionally slow starters, and that reputation has only been embellished in the last three years when the only three Tests they have lost have all been the first Test of a series: home and away against South Africa, and away to Sri Lanka.
India’s board have also done their players a disservice: one three-day practice game against Somerset, interrupted by rain, can only be inadequate by way of preparation. The last touring team that tried to get away with so little time in adjusting to English conditions, West Indies in 2007, dropped dolly catches in their first Test at Lord’s.
The bulk of the Indian party have been playing white-ball cricket in the West Indies, but with Kookaburras, not Dukes, which swing more: batsmen and bowlers need time to adjust. In the absence of Sehwag, and match-practice, England have to dismiss India cheaply in their first innings of this series if they are to get on top.
Only on the quick pitches of Perth and Johannesburg — and against quicker bowling than anything India can parade — has England’s batting buckled in the last couple of years. The key for England is whether their four-man attack, without any support of note, can bowl India — with their great batsmen — out twice. And the lack of support for England’s four bowlers is compounded by the compromised Decision Review System which the Indian board, to save face, agreed upon: no Hawk-eye to predict the ball’s path after the ball hits pad.
It would not matter if Aleem Dar were umpiring, but the Pakistani will not be standing in this series. For the first two Tests the umpires are Billy Bowden and the good, relatively new South African umpire Marais Erasmus; for the last two Tests Simon Taufel and Steve Davis. Stuart Broad has done enough in his championship match for Nottinghamshire, and over the years, to stay ahead of Tim Bresnan as England’s third seamer. Besides, England need fast bowlers who are tall against India — both for the extra bounce and the fact that the only tall West Indian bowler that India have been facing for the last month was not quick.
All that is needed to complete this picture and make it a landscape painting — a veritable Constable — is a pitch that changes in the course of five days and does not remain a road from start to finish, which has been too common of late at Lord’s.
The grand occasion will become dull if it is one long pageant of batsmen, however great they may be. It should not be left to the clouds alone to change the nature of a five-day game.
This Test will be the 100th between England and India, dating back to the inaugural Test at Lord’s in 1932. But it isn’t really going to be the 2,000th Test, if a Test match is defined as a five-day contest between two Test-playing countries at full strength. There have been too many matches since March 1877 that have not fulfilled this criterion.
South Africa, strictly speaking, did not play a Test before 1902. They may have put their best side together several times before then, but the English teams that sailed to the Cape to play them were stocked with amateur club cricketers and only the odd county pro.