You sense something special is imminent for India, but we’ve been down this road before. They are ranked No.1 for Tests but a frustrating inability to consistently win overseas ensures some critics scoff at their lofty standing.
During a pivotal upcoming period, India can stamp themselves as clearly the best team in the world with breakthrough series victories in England and Australia. Long criticised for having a soft underbelly in foreign conditions, India have won just three series in the UK and embarrassingly lost seven of nine Tests in 2011 and 2014.
Even worse, they have never won a Test series Down Under but a golden opportunity awaits with Australia still reeling after the ball-tampering scandal and without the suspended trio Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft.
India should feel like they can overcome their hoodoos in succession and on sheer talent deserve the favouritism tag against a fragile England and weakened Australia. However, undoubtedly, it is hard to ignore the ghosts of past failures which continue to haunt the Indian team.
India’s powerful batting has continually struggled on the seaming decks in England and the bouncy Australian pitches, but their current line-up looks settled and well-rounded. Ominously, a determined Virat Kohli is primed to make amends for a horrid 2014 tour here – a career nadir for the master batsman – and the anticipation is that he will dominate the series even though he must overcome the nemesis that is James Anderson.
As always, India boasts dangerous spinners in veterans Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, along with left-arm wrist sensation Kuldeep Yadav – and turn could come into play due to the warmer weather in the UK.
The pitches are expected to be drier and flatter – a contrast from the seaming decks four years ago amid traditional overcast skies. It is highly likely India starts with dual spin – particularly with in-form Kuldeep tipped to get a berth – but the spinners can’t be expected to perform the heavy lifting as they do in the Sub-continent even if they are assisted by favourable conditions.
Undoubtedly, much of India’s fortunes rest with their mercurial pace attack. They have had talented quicks before, but too often they have been unable to collectively fire when called upon overseas.
Once again, the quicks will be the X-factor for India and question marks remain on whether they can match counterparts Anderson and Stuart Broad on English pitches. On paper, it is a balanced attack boasting pace, swing and bounce – invaluable versatility that has earned high praise from greats Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan, who believe the arsenal is India’s “most complete” for some time.
However, India have been dealt setbacks with star fast bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar and emerging quick Jasprit Bumrah ruled out for the series opener. In a devastating blow after performing so well in the UK four years ago, Bhuvneshwar will miss the first three Tests after suffering a back injury during the ODI series.
Unlike in previous years, India have the potential to cover those losses, but their depth will still be severely tested. The pressure will be on talented but unpredictable bowlers including all-rounder Hardik Pandya, speedster Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami.
Much of the spotlight will focus on Shami, Ishant and Yadav and if the eclectic trio can fire then India will be well placed for a series triumph. Shami, India’s leading wicket-taker in South Africa earlier this year, looms as an especially important bowler with his potent mix of pace and swing invaluable on the UK pitches.
Capable of making up for the loss of Bhuvneshwar, Shami is a skilful operator who hits the right spots and possesses deceptive quickness. He is juxtaposed by Yadav, who provides the necessary pyrotechnics though explosive pace and will be relied upon to be the attack’s enforcer.
An aggressive Kohli will turn to Yadav to shake up the fragile England batting order, which could lead to wickets at the other end.
The towering Ishant is a perfect foil for his cohorts with his bounce another important ingredient to add to a potentially menacing attack. Forever an enigma, Ishant’s considerable talents have never quite materialised since his scintillating burst to Ricky Ponting at the WACA a decade ago in Perth.
Still, Ishant has toiled manfully throughout the years and expectations are high of a strong showing after impressing for Sussex in the County Championship.
The quicks will be striving to make an early impact in the series against a brittle England batting line-up – a far cry from their high-octane output in ODI cricket – in a determined bid to get India off to a quick start.
Considering the tough conditions, India performed admirably in defeat against South Africa earlier this year but the time has come for them to feel unsatisfied with merely being competitive overseas. Under the imposing leadership of firebrand Kohli, India rightfully want to conquer the cricket world on-field – not just off it – and triumphs in England and Australia will set them on the right path to legitimately strive for greatness.
For India to fulfil those dreams, their maligned pace attack must stand up.