By this time tomorrow, the first Test will be afoot at Lord's. If you've fallen into the hype-moat surrounding this series (who hasn't, really, except for one or two continents), then surely you must believe that this will be the best, most competitive Test series since the legendary West Indies v India saga of 2011.
There's every reason to lock yourself up with a TV, laptop, carbs in any form, and another TV (for weather reports): the #1 ranking at stake, Sachin's 100th 100 (possibly first at Lord's) followed by 10,000 (give or take 17) articles about his career, WAGs in the stands, and two most enticing matchups:
1) Pie-chucker meets Pie-lover
|They're from different backgrounds, literally|
2) Man with a sweet tooth
|He'd trade a cow for those beans to know what the beanstalk would look like|
Anyway, playtime's over. Time to move on the technical stuff. The real nitty-gritty. Squeaky bum time. Release the kraken. Right.
India's practice game may have suffered at the hands of rain and Somersetian (Somerian? Somartian?) batsmen, but it actually answered pretty much all the questions related to selection and form. If you accept that you really shouldn't be asking about Dravid, Sachin or Laxman at this point, it's all good. Gambhir and Mukund got runs on the board in their unbeaten second-innings partnership, Raina cemented his place in the best way possible, Sreesanth bowled himself out of contention.
India doesn't have to face Willoughby and Thomas, however; England's pace attack is far superior and much improved since the last time the two teams met. Having said that, India's batsmen already have one start-of-tour batting collapse out of the way, and there won't be too many gifts from them, not even with a Sehwag-sized crater at the top of the order. Based on what I've seen, Mukund is a nervous starter, but once he's in he looks very assured. (Trivia: When was the last time India had two lefties open?)
India's bowling, like on the last English tour, looks like it could use the conditions well - Zaheer Khan is the best left-arm quick in the world at the moment, and Praveen Kumar can get prodigious swing with the new ball. Ishant Sharma just needs to bowl the way he was doing a couple of weeks ago. Harbhajan might fancy himself if he gets bouncy pitches, but this England side won't be as vulnerable to spin as it used to be, especially when they have the luxury of Swann bowling to them in the nets.
Probable XI: Gambhir, Mukund, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Raina, Dhoni (c)(wk), Harbhajan, P. Kumar, Zaheer, Ishant.
England have a superb chance to get an early lead in the series with Sehwag out. Their batsmen have been accumulating runs for a while - Cook, Trott, KP and Bell filled their boots against a toothless Lankan attack. Strauss made merry in the practice game and Prior is in good domestic form, but it won't be as easy against India. Complacency, and a lack of recent quality opposition could get in their way.
Their bowling, however, is in great shape. Jimmy "Jimmy"Anderson and Chris "freakystringbean" Tremlett will cause plenty of problems when on song. Put either under pressure, though, and... well, we'll see when Sehwag's back. Broad will be eager (and under severe, debilitating, acne-inducing pressure) to pick up wickets and stop his Test career from following his ODI career with running shoes on (What?). And Swann's there too. See what I did there? I don't.
Probable XI: Strauss (c), Cook, Trott, Pieterson, Bell, Morgan, Prior (wk), Swann, Broad, Anderson, Tremlett.
Official-looking prediction: Draw. 100th Sachin ton. Both batting sides will stumble. Mukund ton. Broad will take 2-3 wickets. Tremlett will take more. I'll be slightly wrong about something and very wrong about something else.
The tour didn't get ignored as much as I'd thought, actually - quite unlike Raina's first captaincy stint in the tri-series with Zimbabwe and Bangladesh year. There was plenty of interest in the progress of India's next cricketing generation. Here's a list of things that have been added to our knowledge over the course of the T20I, ODIs and Tests.
- I have no idea what Shikhar Dhawan is doing in the team with Rahane and his runs lying around.
- Parthiv Patel has looked like a classy opener for months without scoring big runs. It's like he's a lefty Rohit Sharma or something.
- Badrinath only looks like he may be an effective Test player when he's playing T20's.
- Ashwin can't take wickets when no one is attacking him. He can't use the new ball for India, because we already have good new-ball bowlers.
- Rohit Sharma may have turned the corner. Where a banana skin may still be lurking. That expression never makes sense to me. Does 'turning a corner' mean revolving where you stand while you're in a corner?
- Raina shouldn't be captain - it neutralizes his midwicket-hacks. And he has registered himself for a huge English test by scoring those Test runs.
- Manoj Tiwary deserves another chance.
- Yusuf Pathan does not.
- Rahul Dravid still has some juice in him. Which is good, or else he'd be dehydrated from all the sweat. I think he's only programmed to bat in tough conditions at this point.
- Abhinav Mukund is going to have a real tough time in that first Test against England.
- Virat Kohli. Not ready. Tests. Future of India. Time on his hands. Attitude.
- Hey, Murali Vijay won CSK the IPL4 trophy.
- Praveen Kumar can be very useful in the right conditions. And he's still a tidy bowler when it's not swinging. He will be competing with Munaf and Sreesanth for the third seamer's position though... and going by Dhoni's track record, I have a suspicious suspicion about who might win that spot.
- It's great to see that Ishant is not cutting down on pace. For now.
- Sehwag, Gambhir and a great Indian spinner are conspicuous by absence.
Coming soon, to a blog near you (this one): England vs India preview.
Following his composed, series-sealing innings against the West Indies, there were plenty of those perfunctory 'coming of age' remarks and articles about him. This is not one of them. I just decided to look at some stats and think-analyze-write about them. Just out of curiosity for how often RG Sharma seems to have got on track.
He didn't get to bat on his debut, in a match against Ireland. And when he did, it took him a couple of innings to get to double figures. In fact, it was a classy half-century against Pakistan, in a dead rubber (which, incidentally, was Praveen Kumar's debut - he fittingly began his career with a maiden). Sharma's mode of dismissal was a familiar one - caught at long-on just when he was looking like winning the game. He was the topscorer though.
That innings, though not matchwinning, was significant in another sense - it got him a fixed spot for India's next one-day assignment: a tri-series in Australia, also featuring Sri Lanka. We know that series because India won it - we know it better because of Sachin's performances in the finals. Sharma managed to catch the eye of many with some vital contributions, including a couple of half-centuries.
It was after this that the lean period started. And by lean, I really mean string-thin. Much unlike the rope that the selectors were handing him. I don't mean it was a thick rope, I mean long. Okay, I could have set that up better. Point is, the stats for all the series (seven of them) between June '08 and June'09 are quite dismal. In the 25 innings in that period, he averaged in the low 20s with just one half-century, in a high-scoring loss to Pakistan.
It was eight months before he played his next ODI - and he scored 48 in a dead rubber against South Africa, chasing 365. It probably didn't matter much, but there's a tiny chance that it influenced his selection to the tour of Zimbabwe. Yeah, he probably would've been picked in that second-string side even if he had come off a bunch of ducks in domestic games (that is a really strange sentence). Anyway, he was a bright shining light for India in that seemingly pointless series. Bright, bright, shiny light. And by that I mean he scored a couple of hundreds (his only ones so far) and then fizzled out.
His performance in India's successful Asia Cup campaign meant more praise, and also that he was firmly back in the general scheme of things. Until, of course, the next tournament. 20 runs in 4 innings against Sri Lanka and New Zealand, followed by 49 runs in 5 innings in South Africa pretty much sealed his fate ahead of the World Cup. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Except it isn't. It was a really good way to end that last paragraph though, right? Anyway, it isn't history. It's fairly recent. And that ODI series against the West Indies? Ended last week. Definitely not history. And Sharma batted remarkably well in a series where the only consistent thing about India's batting was its tendency to succumb to the domino effect.
So, this could be a complete turnaround and be the first series of the rest of his career, or it could be one of his many flashes in the pan. He could be RG or WG. Provides some super content to write on, either way.
Note 1: This was first published at Sportskeeda, where it could win me an iPhone 4 - all you have to is head over to it and 'like' it, and comment if you want to.
Note 2: I started writing this around the time of the 4th ODI and forgot about it. So yeah, it's a bit delayed, and not too dated hopefully.