India need to get their act together in the third cricket Test beginning here Wednesday to overwhelm a spirited England, who have challenged the hosts’ traditional strengths - spin domination and home series invincibility.
With the four-match series now level 1-1, the game at the iconic Eden Gardens is crucial as the winner would get an unassailable lead in the rubber.
Having never lost a home series in the last eight years since going down to Australia 1-2 in 2004, India seemed on course to retain their reputation when the spin duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha plotted England’s submission in the opening match at Ahmedabad. It also raised hopes of India avenging the 0-4 drubbing they received in the away series against England last year.
But the 10-wicket humiliation at Wankhede has completely reversed the script.
Not only did the English batsmen, particularly skipper Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen, sort out the Indian spinners, the English slow bowlers Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann showed their superiority. Swann, arguably the world’s best off-spinner now, and Panesar between themselves skittled 19 Indian wickets, making a mockery of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s bid to exploit the so-called home advantage on a square turner.
Dhoni, however, defended his standpoint.
“It is not about whether you lose or win a game, it is about playing in conditions according to your strength. That is what home advantage is all about," he said at the pre-match media meet, days after his demand for another turner triggered a controversy with the Eden curator hitting out at him.
That apart, things definitely are not going well for India’s captain Cool. Besides the Mumbai loss, India’s pathetic display on foreign soil (losing 0-4 to both England and Australia) since last year, has put his captaincy under the scanner. As former skipper Sourav Ganguly pointed out the other day, if India lose at Eden, “there will be lot of changes in Indian cricket”.
Dhoni’s performance with the bat has also not gone unnoticed. And by notching up a paltry 40 in the three innings of the first two Tests, he has only courted more criticism.
Talking about the other Indian batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar, the only surviving player of the golden generation, has looked a mere passenger in the team.
Now in the twilight of his career, the Mumbaikar has spent the last 23 months and 28 innings in the crease without a single three-figure knock in the longest format.
It is time the maestro returns among runs, for otherwise, the already increasing queue of critics asking for his retirement plans is bound to increase. And Aussie great Ricky Ponting’s decision to call time on his career is bound to add to the pressure.
Another worry is Gautam Gambhir, who has not scored a hundred in the last 44 Test innings, though he got a fine 65 in trying circumstances in the second innings of Mumbai Test.
Though Dhoni did not announce the playing XI, there is a strong chance of pacer Ishant Sharma replacing the off-colour Harbhajan Singh, who is also down with flu and skipped practice Tuesday. Local pacer Ashok Dinda is also in the reckoning.
For England, who last won a series in India 28 years back in 1984, the Mumbai triumph has come as a big boost.
Cook and Pietersen have struck form, and would be looking to maintain the momentum at the Eden. Seasoned campaigner Ian Bell - who opted out of the Mumbai match and flew to England for the birth of his child - is also back, and could replace Jonathan Bairstow.
With pacer Stuart Broad going wicketless so far in the series, Cook hinted at playing the fit-from-injury Steve Finn.
“With his availability Finn has added competition to the squad,” said Cook.
Head to head, India have a 3-1 win-loss record against England at the venue, where the two sides first played in 1934. The tourists’ only success came in 1977.
The pitch, which has been the centre of much debate, seemed to have a tinge of grass as on Tuesday.
Dhoni and Cook both said said it would be helpful for the pacers at the start with the spinners getting purchase only in the latter stages of the game.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain), Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Cheteshwar Pujara, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Murali Vijay, Ashok Dinda.
England: Alastair Cook (captain), Nick Compton, Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Eoin Morgan, Matt Prior, Jonny Bairstow, Samit Patel, Graeme Swann, Monty Panesar, James Anderson, Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn, Graham Onions, Stuart Meaker, James Tredwell.
Umpires: Rod Tucker (Australia), Kumara Dharmasena (Sri Lanka)
Match timings: 9 am-11 am; 11-40 am-1-40 pm; 2 pm to 4 pm.