Barring a woeful batting display against Pakistan at The Oval – a rather damp climax to an otherwise bright summer – England could have found themselves on top of the test-match tree. As it is, they don’t. Still, with this in mind, it seems counter-intuitive to look ahead at this winter’s tour with glum pessimism, regardless of whether this may or may not be ‘the English way of doing things’.
However, it really is difficult to feel anything but. The overriding view of our chances this winter is, at best, cagey. At worst, we are as good as beaten.
This winter, we enter the cauldron. The searing heat, the sensory overload, the cricketing equivalent of the baying, seething bullring. The culture shock, the partisan crowds, the unrepaired colonial past. This winter, we travel to India.
And they’re half-decent at cricket, to boot. The number one spot we relentless covet – at least until the ICC make good on their promise of a test championship – is held by India. For a number of years it has been felt that test-match cricket has resided in the shadows of its faster, brasher, multi-coloured one-day cousins in the subcontinent, and that India hasn’t given the longer format the respect that is due. Well, a look at India’s recent record seems to suggest otherwise. Unbeaten since August of last year, they are a force in any conditions. Unbeaten at home since 2012 – when Alastair Cook’s superhuman feats of concentration brought us an unlikely series victory – they are near untouchable on the low, slow, turning wickets of Kolkata, Nagpur and Mumbai. In Rahane, Kohli and Pujara they have a blend of flair, guile, and temperament to match any batting line-up in the world. In Ashwin and Jadeja they have spinners who have been ruthlessly exploiting favourable conditions to make mugs of the world’s finest for years.
And then there is England – on our day world-beating, but in possession of a batting line-up plagued by old fragilities, and over-reliant on Cook and Root. Raw talent courses through the veins of the team, but so many questions remain unanswered. Will Bairstow’s glovemanship be exposed by the turning ball? Do Vince, Stokes and Ali have the patience to build an innings in the unforgiving Indian sun? Who the hell will open with Cook? In attack too, we look haplessly understaffed – Gareth Batty’s recall at the age of 39, after 7 years in the international wilderness, speaks volumes of the dearth in quality spin options. And spin, as we all know, is where subcontinental series are won and, ultimately, lost.
You never know, they might surprise us. The smart money, or in fact almost any money, says they won’t.