I have the following five points to make about the first India-England Test in Trent Bridge.
One: This will be a close-fought Test between two young and flawed teams that have a lot to prove. However, England will win. For all the criticism that has been heaped on them after the Ashes and then the defeat to Sri Lanka, they are still the better team than India is. Some of this has to do with home crowd advantage. Some of it has to do with the fact that if England has a rotten captain in Cook, then he has an equally poor opposite number in Dhoni – so the captaincy differential that existed when Cook was up against Michael Clarke or Angelo Matthews will be nullified. But there are some other factors that will work in England’s advantage that I will analyze below.
Two: India’s bowling attack has been much-maligned. However, I predict that this is an attack that will perform with potency. India’s attack often performs better than expected in Tests abroad, and in both South Africa and New Zealand they were extremely strong early in the series before flagging as the series went on. India may well need to draw on their well of 7 fast bowlers over a 5-Test series; but at the start of the series, their front-line seam combination of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami will be a handful for England’s young batting line-up. Ishant really stepped up to the plate in New Zealand, showing glimpses of the bowler who burst onto the world scene in his debut series in Australia; if he can keep up that kind of performance, he will be a huge threat. He will have excellent support from Bhuvneshwar Kumar, whose swing will be a handful in English conditions, and whose sound temperament makes him the more likely leader of the attack. Shami is still raw, but can be a potent strike bowling supplement to these two. And while Ravindra Jadeja won’t get too much purchase at Trent Bridge, he will at least keep things tight and not give too much away.
Three: The weakness in the attack however concerns not the beginning of a Test match, but the end. Quite often, our bowlers have tended to make early in-roads and leave even strong batting line-ups on the mat early in a game. What they have not been able to do is to finish things off, and this has been too consistent a problem to be wished away. Some of the failure to finish is Dhoni’s fault – his inability to seize the big moments in a Test match as captain is almost pathological, and I will say at the outset that it is his continued presence at the helm that will be the biggest contributing factor to our defeat in England. But some of it is also the fatigue that a four-man bowling attack constantly experiences. This is why even though it could potentially compromise our batting, it would be important for India to go in with the fifth bowler. That fifth bowler could be Ishwar Pandey, who would provide potent support to the three front-line seamers and really provide depth to our seam attack; or Ravichandran Ashwin, who would be a more defensive option in terms of bowling, but would add depth to our batting line-up. Either would be a far better bet than Rohit Sharma, who adds no value with the ball and hasn’t yet shown that he is good enough to bat in Tests abroad. And both would be better bets than Stuart Binny, who is little more than a bits-and-pieces player, and is certainly not a Test class batsman or bowler. The idea behind taking a seam-bowling all-rounder to England was a sound one, but Binny was the wrong man for the job. Had India punted on young Rishi Dhawan, as a number 8 batsman and a fourth seamer who could swing the ball around, then the balance of the team would have been ideal. As it stands, that was one of the biggest missed opportunities in selection.
Four: The real worry for me concerns our batting line-up. It is true that our young batsmen gave a good account of themselves in South African and New Zealand. But England is a different ball game simply because conditions change so much even during the course of an innings, because of the rapidly changing weather. As Rahul Dravid has pointed out, this often means making both technical and mindset adjustments constantly during the course of an innings. Experience therefore counts for more in England than in any other part of the world, and our lack of experience will hurt. Cheteshwar Pujara is good enough to make the necessary adjustments to succeed, and is yet to be dismissed in the warm-up games. But our best batsman in terms of star power is undoubtedly Virat Kohli, who has shown the talent and temperament to adjust quickly to any condition that he has played in. I won’t say that Kohli is the next Tendulkar because no one can be; but I do think of him as the closest there is to Ricky Ponting in contemporary cricket. However, Pujara and Kohli will have a big burden to shoulder, given that our openers are inexperienced, and Murali Vijay in particular has yet to show that he has what it takes to succeed in Tests. I would personally prefer to see Gautam Gambhir in the starting line-up opening with Dhawan: he has shown good form in the warm-up games, and his added experience will be invaluable. India will also need to see Dhoni up to the plate with the bat, as the other batsman with experience, especially since if we play 5 bowlers as we should, then we need him to bat at no. 6.
Five: England’s batting line-up mirrors ours in many ways. The real threat there is Ian Bell, more than the woefully out-of-form Cook. For all of Cook’s consistency over the years, it is Bell who is the one class act in that line-up now that Kevin Pietersen’s career has ended, and Bell now has to play KP’s role as no. 4 and playmaker. He has always been a danger in English conditions, and has always enjoyed playing against India. Like India, England also has a couple of young batsmen with immense promise, especially Joe Root and Moeen Ali. And they bat deep, with Stuart Broad, a constant thorn in our side in the past, coming in as late as 9. The real threat in my opinion however comes from their bowlers. They do lack a quality spinner, but with Pragyan Ojha being kept out of the side for some completely mysterious reason, so do we – and in Trent Bridge, it is the seamers who will determine the fate of a bowling attack in any case. England’s four-man attack will be a handful, and James Anderson, though perhaps in the twilight of his career, will be a real danger. He still, in my mind, is the best swing bowler in world cricket today, and on his day can crack a game open in a single spell. In seam-friendly conditions against an inexperienced line-up, he is England’s ticket to an early win in the series.
Prediction: England wins a close game thanks to a match-defining spell from Anderson to go 1-0 up.
Selection calls: Gambhir to open instead of Vijay; a fifth bowler in either Ashwin or Ishwar Pandey to play at 8 instead of the extra batsman.