India v England head-to-head
India v England
In the early morning of 15 November (GMT, late night of 14 November CST) the first ball of the much awaited India v England series will start. India are probably just favourites given England's horror winter on the subcontinent early this year, but they are far from invulnerable.
I always think it is instructive before a series to look how the two teams compare head-to-head. This is not usually as simple as looking at a handful of stats, though those certainly have their place in any assessment of form. But one must look at conditions, recent form and possible matchups as well. It makes for a very interesting task.
There are six main categories at which to look: captains, openers, middle order, wicket-keepers, pace bowlers and spin bowlers. (Obviously there is some overlap.) Not all of them will probably have the same impact; the middle order will likely be crucial for both teams and in India one always expects the spinners to come into play. But the pace attacks will likely play a bigger role than most people expect and the difference between the experience level of the captains may come into play as well.
Giving each category a ranking would be an interesting task in it's own right, but I'm just going to look at the head-to-head matchups in each one and rank the advantage from none through slight and moderate to strong for one team or the other. Mathematically inclined as I am, it is tempting to then give each of those a number and see who comes out on top, but with the differing impacts of the categories and the subjective nature of the ranking I think that would be folly. Instead, I'll just say that I think India will win a close series 2-1 and follow it up with the comparison.
England's Alastair Cook is leading the side for the first time as full-time captain after the resignation of Andrew Strauss at the end the summer. Facing him is Mahendra Singh Dhoni who will lead India for the fortieth time in Test cricket when the teams play in Ahmedabad. Dhoni has hardly set the world alight with his captaincy and during his side's 0-7 run in England and Australia he often looked utterly clueless. But he is a decent leader and if he is below average as a captain then it isn't by much. It is yet to be seen how Cook will do. He has only ever led England twice before in Test cricket, when Strauss opted out of touring Bangladesh. He knows the team well and has captained in ODIs for some time, but how that translates into Tests is completely unknown. Because of this uncertainty I would say there is a slight advantage to India.
Cook may not have established his captaincy credentials yet, but he certainly has established his credentials as an opening batsman. He had far and away the best average of any opener in the 2011 calendar year and he also has the highest average of all openers in this decade who have scored at least 1000 runs in that time. His opening partner will be the debutant Nick Compton. He forced his inclusion in the Test squad with a staggering domestic season in 2012 and then won the battle with Joe Root for a spot in the starting XI.
India have two very unreliable openers in Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Gambhir has been out of form for a couple of years now and Sehwag is starting to have trouble translating his aggressive style into actual runs even on the helpful subcontinent pitches. It is all but guaranteed that Sehwag will fare better than he did in England last year when he made a king pair in the first Test in which he played, but India need more from him then just that. They need him to perhaps rein himself in a bit and play like someone with an average over sixty on the subcontinent. That is possible, but it's a tad unlikely and right now it's slight advantage to England.
This is a tricky one. Just looking at the players England should have a clear advantage. The only player that India really have over England is Sachin Tendulkar, but although his greatness is unquestionable he has not scored a Test century for almost two years. His last one was in Cape Town in January of 2011 and since then he has very consistently averaged only 35. He should never be discounted; he is one of the all-time great batsmen and may yet be able to do something remarkable, but India cannot count on that. And as good as Virat Kohli has looked, he is still very young and his success comes from a very small sample size. Remember that Ravi Bopara once looked that good too. The end result is that India have a shaky looking middle order up against the rock-like Jonathan Trott, the fluent Ian Bell and the unreliable but sometimes excellent Kevin Pietersen.
But where it gets interesting is the memory of last winter. In the five Tests in the subcontinent at the start of 2012 England's middle order played spin with all the composure of an arachnophobe waking up and finding a tarantula on his chest. I think they will fare better this time around, but perhaps not by enough. Certainly until they can prove that they are the better side in all conditions it is moderate advantage to India.
Dhoni is a decent wicket-keeper for India. He is above average with the gloves, albeit not a lot above average, and can be quite good with the bat at times. But he is not in the same league as England's Matt Prior. Prior is the best wicket-keeper batsman in Test cricket and is one of if not the best with the gloves also. He is an incredible asset for England to have at number seven and it is only because Dhoni is fairly reliable that this is only a moderate advantage to England.
Another pretty easy one. India have Zaheer Khan who is quite good on the odd occasions that he is actually fit and we saw in 2011 that Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar could be effective in the swinging conditions of England. But this isn't going to be in England and Kumar won't even play. Meantime England have a pace attack led by Jimmy Anderson that is second only to South Africa. Steven Finn will miss the first Test with an injury, but Tim Bresnan has looked excellent in the warmups. England's depth is such that Graham Onions, a man who would walk into eight of the ten attacks in the world, is very unlikely to play at all. This is a strong advantage to England and even with the slow pitches could be an important one.
England's bane, as mentioned previously. But England do have a very good one in their own right in Graeme Swann. Swann made his debut last time England toured India and famously took two wickets in his first over. Since then he has established himself as one of the best spinners in the world with flight, guile and turn. India look very likely (not guaranteed, but very likely) to play the young Ravichandran Ashwin. He looked very good earlier this year against New Zealand getting good turn and bounce. But he will be under a lot of pressure to instigate an English collapse like the Pakistani and Sri Lankan spinners did last winter. It is not known how he will cope, though I doubt it will be a huge factor. But just as the uncertainty about Cook gave India an edge earlier, this is slight advantage to England.