FOR the past two months, the England management have gone through excruciating contortions to return a contrite and somewhat chastened Kevin Pietersen to the side. It has worked, thus far: all parties seem content to start afresh and such is the vigour of Pietersen’s talent that he reminded all doubters of his importance with a superb century during the final warm-up match against Haryana.
Add in the excellent form of Samit Patel, with one century and two half-centuries, and a series of decent innings by Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and, belatedly, both Ian Bell and Nick Compton, and all should be well. The batting unit is working, a new opening partner for Cook has been found, at least in the short term, and all have enjoyed lengthy periods at the crease.
And yet there should be a great sense of trepidation about the four-match Test series that starts on Friday morning in Ahmedabad. The problem is injuries, absences and a general sluggishness among the bowlers.
India can be unforgiving for the leather slingers. Wickets tend to the slow and low, and spin is a crucial element of any attack. Patel and Monty Panesar have manfully toiled, and with some success, but England’s key man is Graeme Swann and he has been back in England tending a poorly, new-born daughter.
The opening attack has hardly fared better. Steven Finn limped out of the first warm-up game after four overs with a sore thigh, yet such is his importance to the bowling plans the management are considering playing him in the first Test as his rehabilitation work has gone well. That is a gamble worthy of a romantic in Monte Carlo.
The problem is that Stuart Broad, the other tall bowler with the ability to bang it in and extract the kind of steep bounce that discomfits even the best batters, is also injured with a bruised heel. Realistically, he has no chance of playing on Friday and is likely to be replaced by the workhorse, Tim Bresnan.
That leaves a lot of pressure on James Anderson and ultimately the two spinners selected. There will be some sore shoulders among the twirling fraternity. When New Zealand played here in 2010, Daniel Vettori worked through more than 54 overs in the first innings, with Jeetan Patel adding 29 more as India scored 487 in 151 overs. That is a huge percentage but when New Zealand responded with 459 in more than 160 overs, poor old Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ohja delivered 96 overs between them.
So England need to escape from this low and slow pitch with a draw. It would bolster confidence, ensure the series is not deflated with an immediate loss and give those suffering injuries time to recuperate.
England’s plan is to attack hard with the seamers and then contain. That is mighty difficult to achieve when most of the threatening seamers are spending most of their time with the sawbones.
It is safe to assume India will score heavily, which means England must do likewise and to do that they really must prove, as a unit, that they can play and score against spin on the subcontinent. Planning to draw may not be the most adventurous strategy but a series is much more than one match and England, like a sniper, will have to pick their moments to attack very carefully.
The problem is none of the other grounds look suitable for England. Mumbai does allow some early morning swing but usually generates big scores and spin, while Kolkata and Nagpur spin and often quite sharply. There is a recurring theme through all of this series and it is spin. India are not the powerhouse of Test cricket they were two or three seasons ago – some batting legends have retired and there are genuine question marks over Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh – but it will not matter if their spin merchants whittle through England as easily as Pakistan did last winter.
Ohja, Harbhajan and Ravichandran Ashwin are a formidable trio. Can England negate these three on pitches that will help them? Form and common sense say no and that is why this could be a painful four Test matches for new captain Cook, regardless of Pietersen’s return.