Three very unusual things are going to happen in Indian cricket this summer. First, at least three Indian players, and perhaps more, will play English county cricket, something which very few have done in recent years, given the round-the-year demands on Indian cricketers.
Second, between two and four Indian Test regulars will be included in the “India A” side touring England in the early part of the British summer.
And third, for the first time India will play a Test match without its first-choice eleven, as India take on Afghanistan on 14 June in the absence of five or six players who will find themselves in England – including their captain, Virat Kohli, who will be playing for Surrey that day instead of leading India.
All three are interesting developments, and yet fully worthy of being applauded by Indian cricket-lovers. For they reflect a determination to succeed in England this summer, as no Indian team has been able to do in over a decade.
India’s last two tours of England were disastrous. In both 2011 and 2014 they looked shell-shocked by English pace and outfoxed by English seam movement, and several mighty reputations took a major beating. Mighty Virat Kohli failed miserably in the Test series in 2014 with an aggregate of 134 runs in ten innings, for a paltry average of 13.40.
Eight times out of ten he was caught behind or in the slip cordon, seemingly unable to avoid fatally nicking the away-moving ball. A batsman who averages over 50 in every form of the game – and who is hailed by many as arguably the best batsman in the world today – owes it to himself and his team to rectify that embarrassing record.
The answer to India’s travails abroad clearly lie in the need for greater acclimatisation. Earlier touring teams used to enjoy the luxury of three or four first-class matches against English county sides before facing the first Test, but that practice has fallen by the wayside, as cricket Boards seek to maximise the revenues available from televisable international matches – scheduling more ODIs and T20s instead.
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When India toured South Africa earlier this year, the lack of familiarity with that country’s ground and climatic conditions was apparent in the team’s defeats in the first two Tests – the team’s first two matches after arriving. When the players had acclimatised to the conditions, they won the Third Test. But it was too little too late.
That is the mistake they wish not to repeat in England. The Board won’t change the itinerary and give them more practice games, because there are more lucrative options available. But it has agreed to ensure that as many Indians as possible get to play red-ball cricket anyway in June, so as to have experience of English conditions before the Test series – even if it isn’t in India colours.
So Virat Kohli and Cheteswar Pujara, another whose performance in 2014 did not live up to his reputation as a formidable run-machine in the longer form of the game, will play for Surrey and Yorkshire, respectively, in the county championship. Fast bowler Ishant Sharma, who like Pujara did not acquire an IPL contract, will hone his craft bowling for pace-friendly Sussex.
Players like Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane, who are expected to have to face English pace bowlers in the Test series, will be included in the India A squad of youngsters touring England under coach and mentor Rahul Dravid’s guidance. One or two more of India’s Test team – Hardik Pandya is an obvious contender – will join them.
This means that India will face Afghanistan in that country’s maiden Test with what will be derided as a second-string eleven. But it is no disrespect to the plucky and colourful Afghans to say that India’s depth of cricketing resources means that even a side that is not “first-choice” should be able to deal comfortably with a novice team taking its first bow on the world stage.
Nor to admit that, in the larger interests of Indian cricket, preparing key players for the rigours of an England tour should take precedence over giving them an opportunity to set a few records in a likely mismatch.
India can pick a side versus Afghanistan that will do well in Indian conditions – many of whom might not have got a game against England in England, like our young spinners, but deserve a chance at home to show what they can do.
So congratulations to all concerned for some bold and original thinking. Whether it proves effective will, of course, only be known at the end of the summer. But if India doesn’t rectify its woeful reputation as hopeless tourists in this English Test series (starts on 1 August), at least it won’t be because they didn’t try everything to give themselves the best possible chance.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)