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Cook and Rashid key to England’s chances in India

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Alastair_Cook_England_cricketAn away series in India represents the toughest of all assignments in modern cricket. In conditions tailor-made for the home side, coupled with the sparkling array of talent that their selectors have to draw upon, India are formidable opponents. Having lost just two series on home soil since their loss against South Africa in early 2000, the smart money is on India extending their record still further over the coming weeks.

But the beauty of sport, of course, is that you just never know. Especially when the last team to defeat India at home happens to be the next one to come calling.

England’s 2-1 victory in 2012-13 was the greatest of all the achievements of the Andy Flower era, a win founded on the batting of Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen and the bowling of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. Three out of those four players will be missing this time round, but England’s fortunes will again ride on the performances of their batsmen and spin bowlers.

Chief amongst the former will again be Cook. The most prolific non-Asian batsman of all time in sub-continental conditions, the ‘daddy hundreds’ that have so decorated the England captain’s record in Asia will never be more essential. The choice of Cook’s opening partner will be critical, too, as England seek to build their innings on more solid foundations than they managed in Bangladesh.

 

After the trials of Chittagong and Dhaka, much of the talk in the build-up to the forthcoming series has - quite naturally - focused on the shortcomings of England’s batting against spin. Ironically though, as proved by Swann and Panesar but more recently by Imran Tahir and even Dean Elgar, India’s batsmen can be just as susceptible to the turning ball. Conditions are the same for both teams, after all, and a flurry of falling wickets can happen to either side. It is the quality of the spin bowling that is likely to decide this series, and for England the key player in that regard will be Adil Rashid.         

Over the past four decades, attacking English spinners have been as rare as West Indian blockers. Traditionally of the finger rather than wrist-spin variety, with an emphasis on containment and building pressure rather than aggression, England have tended to look towards solid, safe pairs of hands; bowlers who can be relied upon to dry up an end while the seamers rest and, best case scenario, chip in with a wicket or two along the way. Not without success, of course, John Emburey and Ashley Giles being highly accomplished examples, but hardly players or a strategy that was likely to run through an opposing line-up on a regular basis. Especially, as was repeatedly demonstrated, on the sub-continent.

In Graeme Swann, England at last found someone to break that mould: a match-winner capable of both tying up an end and bowling out the opposition. In 2012-13 his partnership with the slow left-arm of Panesar proved to be decisive. This time round, it is essential that Rashid steps up to fulfil a similar role.    

Amongst England’s choice of four frontline spinners, it is Rashid who is the most attacking option. With a collection of variations and ability to beat the bat both ways, he offers a seldom-seen dimension to the English attack. But against the unforgiving Indian line-up, he quickly needs to find the consistency that eluded him in Bangladesh.

England have been careful in the way they have managed Rashid since his debut in 2015, allowing him to hone his skills in the Big Bash, for example, rather than play Test cricket in South Africa at the turn of 2015. The upcoming series offers him a real opportunity to cement a place in the Test side. The bottom line, though, is that if England is to succeed, Rashid has to take wickets.

At the other end Moeen Ali will also have a big part to play. India are likely to be more circumspect than they were in 2014, as a succession of batsmen trying to hit him out of the attack found themselves among his eventual haul of nineteen wickets over the series. Moeen may not yet be a match-winner in the Swann mould, but he is a bowler with a knack of picking up wickets and he will undoubtedly do so again this time around.

His fellow off-spinner Gareth Batty, for many the surprise tourist of the English winter, is the likely third spinner for the first Test in Rajkot. Batty is a bowler in the English tradition, a container rather than a striker, but he turns the ball and will punish any Indian complacency. His Surrey team-mate, slow left-armer Zafar Ansari, may find his chances more limited, but he offers England another option and may well be called upon over the five Test series.             

From whatever angle, though, this series is a mouth-watering prospect. England come into it as underdogs – as last time – but will relish the challenge to test themselves against the best team and toughest conditions in world cricket. India unquestionably start as favourites, but if both Alastair Cook and Adil Rashid find form the series may end up somewhat tighter than anticipated.

 

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Jake Perry is a freelance cricket writer. He writes regularly on Scottish cricket for Cricket Scotl...

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