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The winding road to redemption

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A FACE-OFF TO REMEMBER? Ravichandran Ashwin (left) of India and England's Kevin Pietersen are expected to play key roles

After the trials and tribulations of the past year, India embark on a journey to regain pride, beginning with the series against England.

The battle lines have been clearly drawn even before the first ball has been bowled in the highly-anticipated four-Test series between India and England. England will expect plenty of spin on brown, dusty turners and India, after picking three quality spinners in the form of R Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Harbhajan Singh, will be bowling a lot of it.

The hosts, it seems, have already pulled a fast one on the visitors, led by the reliable Alastair Cook, thanks to the newlyappointed selectors not picking a specialist spinner in any of the three warm-up ties that England played. What's more, the tracks that the three warm-up ties were played on were all flat. In fact, they helped the fast bowlers more than anything.

Ideal practice? Certainly not. The non-rationalists would proclaim that Round One of the rather tasteless, unimaginatively coined 'Revenge Series' has gone to the hosts, mainly because of that move. But is it premature and foolish to assume that this English team will succumb as easily to spin as did their predecessors? There is some history to buy into that argument. The core of this team after all, is the same that crumbled against Saeed Ajmal and Abdul Rehman in Abu Dhabi and Dubai as England got whipped 3-0 against Pakistan. That defeat was the start of their slide from the No. 1 spot.

They even massaged the ego of Yuvraj Singh, at best a parttime left-arm-spinner, by losing five wickets to him in the three-day warm-up game against India 'A' at the CCI. England's critics could ask a logical question: If you couldn't handle Yuvraj, how can you handle the specialist spinners?

It's time, though, to look at the bigger picture. England hardly played a sweep shot, something that came naturally to them the moment the batsman saw spin and saw forward short leg, silly point and leg gully in their peripheral vision.

In Cook and Jonathan Trott, they have players who can play attrition-based cricket and grind the bowlers, a fact that the more attacking players like Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Matt Prior can take advantage of. They will benefit by having Graham Gooch (batting coach) and Andy Flower (director of cricket ) as sounding boards. Few visiting batsmen have played spin better than these two gentlemen. "What happened in UAE against Pakistan highlighted exactly where we're at: we did struggle there. But I thought the improvements were made in Sri Lanka. To draw a Test series out there was a really good achievement. It is important how we train against spin and how we start, "said captain Cook before he left English shores.

England have won only two of their last 22 Tests in the subcontinent (Mumbai 2006 and Colombo 2012) since the start of the new millennium. Expectedly, many are expecting a 4-0 scoreline in favour of the hosts. To believe that would be doing injustice to England's skills and overestimating India's strengths.

Indeed, India have problems of their own. Their pace bowling stocks are at an all-time low if you consider the latest injury scare to Zaheer Khan. Barring Ojha and Ashwin, there are not many spinners around in the country who one can bank on to pick a five-for even on a Day 4 track - a fact endorsed by England offspinner Graeme Swann at a press conference in Ahmedabad.

Defending the team's poor show in the desert against Pakistan and their struggles against Saeed Ajmal, who picked up 24 wickets in three Tests, Swann said, "I think last winter was a bit different. First of all, when we played in Dubai, it was not really the subcontinent. That wicket was very unique in the sense that it was very skiddy and turned as well. India's wickets are more traditional, more what people are used to, so I would be very surprised if that happened again. Secondly, we were bowled out by a mystery spinner the batsmen could not pick. India are not really blessed with a mystery spinner like that. "

One of those spinners is on a comeback trail, though. Harbhajan Singh needs to sort out the demons in his mind. He will need to decide whether he wants to entice the batsman to drive through cover and get him bowled or caught in the slips, or whether he wants to bowl darts and be satisfied with merely an economy rate of under two-and-a-half, with very little to show for in the wickets column.

India's dominance at home over the years has been built on their batsmen making tall scores on 'true' wickets and allowing their bowlers to make use of the natural wear and tear in the pitch and excel on days four and five. Those are the days that Test matches move forward quickly in India. The miracle of Eden against Australia in 2001 was achieved in the last session on Day Five. The next Test at Chepauk too was a classic scripted in the dying minutes of the final day. India's 'genuine' home wins against quality opponents like England (Chennai, 2008), Sri Lanka (Mumbai 2009), South Africa (Kolkata 2010), Australia (Mohali 2010, Bangalore 2010), when they were ranked No. 1 or were on the journey towards it, were all achieved on Day 5.

All those triumphs had one pattern: Tall first-innings scores with the visitors failing to make it count in the third or fourth innings. What does that indicate? India scrapped hard and had the skill to go toe to toe against formidable foes and delivered the knockout punch when the opponents flagged mentally and physically. While Kohli, Gambhir and Dhoni have batted vehemently for turners, it would make sense for the BCCI to not heed to their request blindly. Over the last decade of Test cricket in India, only two wickets can be classified as rank turners. The Wankhede pitch against Australia in 2004 and the Kanpur pitch against South Africa in 2008. India still won handsomely at home.

Also, very few have asked if India's lineup can succeed against England's bowlers, even at home. Openers Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag have a combined average of 24 in the last five Tests. Sehwag hasn't struck a Test ton since November 2010.

Gambhir hasn't struck one since January 2010. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are no longer there and India's best ever batsman, Sachin Tendulkar, is in one of his worst-ever form slumps, not having struck a ton in 13 Tests. Barring Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, no batsman can claim to be in form. By preparing under-prepared wickets, India may just shoot themselves in the foot.

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