India seek turnaround, England chase history

Nagpur Test offers the home team a last shot at equalising the series.

MS Dhoni: In the line of fire. (File picture)

NAGPUR:
Not in almost 30 years have India lost three Tests in a home series. Not in recent memory has Sachin Tendulkar been questioned of his intent. Not in an eternity has the fate and future of Indian cricket hung in the balance like it does now after an almighty pasting at home at the hands of England.

However repugned the hosts might be to the idea, Alastair Cook’s men now stand at the threshold of history, possessed of a chance to emulate Tony Greig’s 1969/70 outfit, which had defeated India 3-1, as the fourth and final Test begins at Nagpur’s Jamtha Stadium on Thursday. England lead 2-1 following an unprecedented chain of events that received scant resistance from the conditions, the toss or even from the kind of half-baked preparatory practice a vengeful BCCI dished out to them.  

India’s troubles have been plentiful. Their batting line up lies in tatters after key retirements; another huge superannuation looms threateningly; the captain is under fire; and the bowlers – on tailor-made tracks – have come a cropper against stoic England batting. The last time India had lost three home Tests in a series was against the West Indie sin 1983-84.

It would take some effort from India’s old and new to prevent the visitors from gaining their first Test series win on the sub-continent in 28 years, since the silken David Gower led them victoriously in 1984-85. It would be a bigger folly to expect it all to come together for India in the space of one Test match - when the symptoms have been festering so blatantly and for so long.

Symbolic fall

India has lost 10 of its last 16 Tests in the past two years, including away whitewashes against England and Australia. After reaching its marketing zenith at the 2011 World Cup – as a billion-strong audience watched their favourite son raise the coveted trophy – the downfall has been rapid. And it’s the same darling son’s slow descent into the frailties of mortality that now mirrors the team’s decline. Symbolic?  Tendulkar would beg to differ.

The great man enters the Nagpur Test with a question mark on his future – almost as big a question mark as the one suspended over the intent and direction of Indian cricket. Tendulkar’s dwindling form has gone hand in hand with the fall of the team as he has totaled just 110 runs across five innings – 76 of those arriving as one knock. There is immense pressure on him to call it day. Will he? Will he not? A lot depends on how he – and India – fares in the final Test match.

Batting woes

The wicket at Jamtha is expected to take turn early. There have been results in the last three Tests played here with India winning two and losing one. Whatever the state of the pitch, India’s troubles have usually begun at the top. Although Virender Sehwag has a century in the series and Gautam Gambhir a succession of fifties, the openers have paled before the exploits of their English counterparts.

Cook, the series’ leading batsman, and fellow opener rookie Nick Compton have ground India into the very dust bowls they had so optimistically hoped to spark their success. The poor form of young Virat Kohli is another source of bother. The Delhiite was a revelation last year in Australia, but has struggled in the series with 85 runs in three matches.

Captaincy crisis, internal strife

Dhoni’s run with the bat has been as good or as bad as it has always been. But sorry performances at home have triggered calls for his head. Former selector Mohinder Amarnath came out with how MS was on the edge of being sacked as captain after India’s 0-4 whitewash in Australia, and how there were external factors that allowed him to continue in his position. Dhoni has lashed out saying he won’t back out of leading the side.

His demands for doctored pitches have received severe criticism, especially when India capitulated tamely after being granted their choicest surfaces. Add to this the latest imbroglio involving his ‘unhappiness’ with Gambhir and what you have is a most un-ideal scenario going into a vital game. And really, who do you replace Dhoni with? An out-of-sorts Sehwag? A struggling Gambhir? An untempered Virat Kohli? It matters little who’s at the helm when the entire team is underperforming.

Fresh blood

Several-time domestic triple-centurion Ravindra Jadeja and leg-spinner Piyush Chawla have been blooded in as replacements for the two Singhs - Yuvraj and Harbhajan. The 24-year-old can also assist Pragyan Ojha, the leading wicket-taker for India with 19 in the series, with his left-arm spin. While a revelation with the bat, R. Ashwin has not been his usual self with the ball. He would hope to make amends at Nagpur.

Chawla’s inclusion will give India a spin-heavy attack on a Jamtha pitch that will start turning in haste. India’s fast bowling will be in the hands of Ishant Sharma and Ashok Dinda, although Zaheer Khan’s replacement Parwinder Awana is unlikely to play. While India have a load of problems to confront, England are having very few and are expected to retain the winning eleven for the series finale.

Finn out

Cook has assured England will go all out for another win, although they received a setback when fast bowler Steve Finn was ruled out with a back injury. Finn had missed the first two Tests with a thigh strain, but returned to play at Kolkata. A scan revealed a minor disc injury in his lower back. Since Stuart Broad is also out of contention with a heel injury, Finn is likey to be replaced by all-rounder Tim Bresnan.

The visitor’s batting is in ship shape. Cook has scored centuries in his last five Tests, the talismanic Kevin Pietersen played a classy match-winning knock at Mumbai, and Jonathan Trott and Compton have chipped in as and when required. Most tellingly, England’s spinners have run circles around India. Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann have claimed 33 wickets in five collective Tests. James Anderson has harnessed lethal reverse swing, and the catching has been decent, if not spectacular.

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