India seek chance for redemption
Battered and bruised in what has turned out to be an abysmal tour, a demoralised India go into the five-match ODI cricket series against England on Saturday with repeated batting collapses and toothless bowling continuing to haunt them.
September 3, Chester-le-Street
Start time 1015 (0915 GMT, 1430 IST)
Autumn is closing in and the football season is in full swing. A major Test series has been wrapped up with aplomb, and now attention turns to a lengthy round of what might, in some quarters, be regarded as After-the-Lord-Mayor's-show ODI fixtures. Not so long ago, such a scenario would have guaranteed a slackening of English interest and, coincidentally or not, culminated in a crushing defeat. But not anymore. For a variety of reasons, the coming fortnight ought to contain some of the most keenly fought contests of the year.
As a reference point, take the last ODI meeting between these two teams - that incredible World Cup tussle in Bangalore back in March. A Sachin Tendulkar hundred appeared to have propelled India towards a hefty victory, only for the innings of Andrew Strauss's one-day life to haul the game back in England's direction. A stunning late spell from Zaheer Khan tipped the scales once again, only for England's tail to scramble their way to a tie.
What happened next hardly needs spelling out. India surged to their second World Cup victory, while England staggered to a quarter-final battering by Sri Lanka in the most harum-scarum campaign of all time. Six months on, therefore, both teams have a great deal to prove. India, as reigning World Champions, will be seeking to confirm their one-day pre-eminence in their biggest bilateral series since that final in Mumbai; England will want to use this stage to prove they are a far better limited-overs outfit than they recently appeared to be.
So far this summer, England have already had the better of one of the World Cup finalists, Sri Lanka, and on the evidence of India's tour so far, they will be expecting to emulate that achievement in the coming weeks. Strauss has stepped aside to concentrate on his Test future, but his replacement Alastair Cook showed an astounding change of pace in his first ODI series for 15 months, leading from the front with a century at Lord's, and 95 from 75 balls in the series-turning victory at Trent Bridge. A new-look team has no place for Kevin Pietersen, after the decision was taken to rest him for the remainder of the summer, but England's momentum and self-belief is sure to carry over, to some degree, from their Test series whitewash.
India's fortunes surely cannot slip any lower than they are at present. There were glimpses of a resurgent attitude in the Twenty20 defeat at Old Trafford, where the debutant Ajinkya Rahane showcased a technique and temperament that bodes well for future challenges, and where even the exposed Suresh Raina found a method to combat his short-ball uncertainties - his baseball smack for six off Stuart Broad wasn't entirely convincing but mighty effective.
They lack a glut of senior players from that World Cup campaign - Zaheer, Harbhajan Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Ishant Sharma and Virender Sehwag have all fallen by the wayside in the course of an arduous tour, which leaves the ever-green Sachin Tendulkar to carry the burden of expectation once again, as he embarks on his latest quest for that elusive 100th international hundred. Rahul Dravid, recalled to the ODI team for a farewell campaign, will provide a sturdy sidekick, but all things considered - not least, the ropey Indian fielding that prompted Nasser Hussain's controversial "donkey" comment - England will believe they've got the beating of this team.
As West Indies, Australia and India all demonstrated in cricket's recent past, when you're the No. 1 in the world in one format, the expectation is that you should emulate that achievement across the board. With 10 series wins in their last 12 bilateral engagements, England do have something on which to build. But if India deny them in the coming five games, they'll feel they've lost more than just the summer's consolation prize.
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In the spotlight
Jade Dernbach was a shock call-up to England's World Cup squad this winter. Uncapped and largely unknown, he vaulted into the knock-out stages via the England Lions tour to the Caribbean, and came within a whisker of playing in that ten-wicket quarter-final defeat against Sri Lanka. But as this summer has progressed, so his extraordinary virtues have made themselves known. Not since Darren Gough was in his pomp have England possessed a one-day bowler so full of tricks and variation, and even Gough's slower balls lacked the subtlety that Dernbach brings to the mix. In consecutive fixtures, his death bowling proved too canny for Ireland in Dublin and India at Old Trafford, and while his methods are now well-known, few batsmen have managed to decode him.
Generally speaking, it's not wise to read too much into a single Twenty20 performance, but on a tour of few highlights from an Indian point of view, the composure shown by their debutant opener, Ajinkya Rahane, was a very welcome development. He came into the contest boasting a first-class average of 67 after learning his trade in the Ranji Trophy, and the confidence with which he dismissed England's short-ball attack gave the impression of a player with substance. In a batting order crying out for technical proficiency to replace a raft of ageing greats, he's clearly a man to watch.
Graeme Swann, who might have celebrated the Twenty20 victory a bit harder than he intended, is a doubt for Durham after suffering a stomach complaint - a decision will be made in the morning. In Pietersen's absence, Ian Bell is likely to slot in at No. 4, although there may be a temptation to blood the new boy, Ben Stokes, in front of his home crowd at Chester-le-Street.
England (possible) 1 Craig Kieswetter (wk), 2 Alastair Cook (capt), 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Ian Bell, 5 Eoin Morgan, 6 Ravi Bopara, 7 Samit Patel, 8 Tim Bresnan, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 James Anderson, 11 Jade Dernbach
India have no fitness issues to report - aside from the glut that have already decimated the squad, of course.
India (possible) 1 Ajinkya Rahane, 2 Sachin Tendulkar, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 Virat Kohli, 5 Suresh Raina, 6 Rohit Sharma, 7 MS Dhoni (capt / wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Praveen Kumar, 10 Munaf Patel, 11 R Vinay Kumar
Pitch and conditions
A seam-friendly surface, and grey Northern skies are on the agenda. The prospect is for showers, and nippy autumnal temperatures.
Stats and trivia
India are unbeaten in ODIs against England since 2007, having won 5-0 in their home series in November 2008, and tied their most recent match back in March. However, England took the spoils in the last series in this country four years ago, winning the rubber 4-3 after a seven-wicket win in the decider at Lord's.
England have won four of their previous eight ODIs at Chester-le-Street, including each of their last three against Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand. Their only previous match at the venue against India, in 2002, was a wash-out.
Two players remain from that 2002 fixture, and no prizes for guessing which they are. Sachin Tendulkar scored 105 not out and Rahul Dravid (keeping wicket) made 82, before rain prevented a probable India win.
"Let's not get too carried away with four years' time. The most important thing is what we do tomorrow."
Alastair Cook believes that the planning for the next World Cup is secondary to the challenge of beating the current World Champions
"There are fresh faces with the mindset to do well and have had time to prepare."
Virat Kohli thinks India's build-up to the ODIs - which included three tour games - will stand them in good stead.