India need to keep their guard up (Column: Close-in)

The unimaginable Test series victory against Australia has brought immense joy for the millions of Indian cricket followers and fans. This is quite understandable as India showed both resilience and toughness in the way they played the last two Test matches in Australia. The rear-guard action in drawing the third Test and the positive mind-set in bringing about an incredible victory in the fourth match was a good example of it. The most interesting aspect of it all was that the daring performances were without their most dependable and accomplished teammates.

Victory such as this before the next series is something a team has to be wary of as the expectations from their well-wishers seem to always rocket skywards. The Indian side will need to be very careful not to get too confident and complacent and will need to keep their guard up.

The four-Test match series against England starting on the February 5 in Chennai is very crucial not only for India but for England too. Both sides are very strong contenders to qualify for the World Test Championship final to be held in England in June. That’s why there will be that extra pressure on both teams in the way they approach the matches.

The England team may have a slight initial advantage, solely because they have played two Test matches in Sri Lanka. The wickets to bat and bowl on there are very similar to what they will play on in Chennai. India, on the other hand, have had a long tour of Australia and both their batsmen and bowlers will need to adjust quickly to their home conditions. One takes it for granted that a cricketer will automatically attune to the conditions in which he has grown up. This is not always the case as playing in different conditions bring in changes in the way the mind and feet work, and it does not become the default way in which the body automatically responds.

In the past, many Indian cricketers travelled to England to play club cricket during the off-season. It took them time to get used to the conditions on their return. I was a member of the Indian World Cup and Test side in 1979. We were away for nearly four months and on our return were to play Australia in a week’s time. The visitors were more at home with the conditions having played a few warm-up games.

The present Indian side has just three days in which to practice before the first Test match and, therefore, one hopes that they can adjust by then. The difficult part for the batsman is the low bounce and this is similar for the bowlers as well.

The England side has a very good bowling attack. Although India is nicely equipped with a good pace attack, a green wicket would not be an option especially with James Anderson, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, and Ben Stokes in England’s armoury. England off-spinner Dom Bess and their left-arm spinner Jack Leach have had a successful Sri Lanka tour and so, along with their pace bowlers, they have a very balanced attack.

England’s batting, one feels, is a bit brittle in Asian conditions and will depend on Joe Root, Stokes and Jos Buttler. They will miss Jonny Bairstow, who has been rested as per the new rotating policy been implemented by the English board.

One of India’s biggest issues will be the return of Virat Kohli. He will be back to lead a side that has done well during his absence. He will be under a lot of pressure as regards his captaincy, as the success of Ajinkya Rahane in his absence, is something that will rankle his mind subconsciously. He will have to not only establish his position as India’s leading batsman but also as their astute leader.

The other area of concern will be India’s bowling line-up. The return of Ishant Sharma may result in Shardul Thakur being dropped from the playing XI. Thakur was one of the stars of India’s victory, both with the bat and the ball. The Indian policy of bringing an established player back in the side on their return will sadly result in Thakur or Mohammed Siraj sitting on the side-lines.

Spinners play a major part in India. Although Ravichandran Ashwin will lead the attack, the absence of Ravindra Jadeja will be felt until his return. The toss up for a place will be between Kuldeep Yadav and one of the new superstars of India, Washington Sundar. With the latter’s success, India will most likely go in with two off spinners. Although, Axar Patel, the Gujarat left-arm spinner is in the squad, one feels it is unlikely that he will play.

India have a big challenge in hand as England in their last encounter did get the better of them. England have three outstanding cricketers in their fold. The world’s leading all-round cricketer, Stokes, one of the best batsmen in Root, and bowler Archer. This trio is a threat to any side that plays them.

India have a formidable batting line-up with Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli, Rahane and the new hero, Rishabh Pant, to bolster them. The euphoria of the win against Australia will need to be put aside and India will need to come out with all guns blazing. Else, England could steal a march over them.