India must use Johannesburg cricket Test win as inspiration ahead of England tour
The Indian team have not won a Test series in England since 2007, but Virat Kohli's men have shown they are capable of achieving success on difficult pitches
It might make little sense to forecast how India will fare in their five-Test series in England, what with more than six months left before the first match gets underway at Edgbaston on August 1.
During the intervening period, most of the players involved in the just-concluded Test series against South Africa will showcase their talents in a clutch of limited-overs games, starting with six one-day internationals and three Twenty20 internationals against the Proteas.
Then there is the tri-nation T20 tournament in Sri Lanka, followed by the annual, two-month-long Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 competition. India will also play three T20s and as many ODIs against England before they turn their attention to five-day cricket.
So while Virat Kohli's men will not arrive in Old Blighty undercooked, playing just the one home Test against debutants Afghanistan is unlikely to prepare them for facing the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
Yet, institutional memory will serve to fill the players with a sense of cautious optimism.
Sure, they lost the series in South Africa. But 2-1 does not read as bad as 4-0, which was the scoreline at the end of India's tours of England and Australia in 2011 and 2011/12. They also won the last match on "a green mamba" as a one journalist covering the Johannesburg Test put it.
Celebrating in Johannesburg
Granted that with the exception of Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and the belatedly-selected Ajinkya Rahane, India's batsmen had a sobering experience in South African conditions, but they fought a good fight in the final game.
India's bowlers came of age, too. The fact all 120 wickets fell, a feat never before achieved in a three-match series, was a testament of how well both the teams' bowling attacks performed - admittedly in helpful conditions. And it was not just the seamers: Ravichandran Ashwin took four wickets on the first two days of the second Test at Centurion to prove the off-spinner's increasing maturity on foreign pitches.
Despite the encouraging signs, India know there is some way to go for them to win a Test series in England for the first time since 2007.
Their utterly forgettable tour seven years ago was the outcome of a team still in celebration mode following their 50-overs World Cup win a few weeks earlier. The side also consisted of players who were either over the hill or not entirely match-fit.
Their visit in 2014 was less painful, with India winning the second Test at Lord's by 95 runs, thanks in large part to then captain MS Dhoni's inspired suggestion to Ishant Sharma to bowl short to the England batsmen. However, a lack of Test match experience proved telling as the visitors were greeted with less hospitable conditions in the next three games. That series ended in a 3-1 defeat.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar will be key in England
This time though, India have no such excuses. There is plenty of depth in the squad: the 18 who went to South Africa have played 649 Tests between them.
Kohli deserves some credit for this, given his propensity to change the XI after every Test he has captained India in. But his selection policy can be a double-edged sword as it proved in South Africa.
It was foolish to drop Bhuvneshwar Kumar after the seamer took six wickets in the first match at Cape Town. He proved as much by taking four wickets and scoring 30 and 33 in Johannesburg. Bhuvneshwar must play in all five Tests in England as should Rahane, who must be picked ahead of the less-dependable Rohit Sharma. Rahane is vice-captain and the second-best batsman in the side after Kohli.
Ashwin and Hardik Pandya will also be useful in England because of their all-round abilities. Pandya will especially lend balance to the side with his fearless hitting and seam bowling. And in the unlikely event neither player performs, there is always Ravindra Jadeja waiting in the wings.
India will worry about their openers, for good reason. Murali Vijay often got out after getting his eye in. Lokesh Rahul's technique was found wanting as his dismissals were mostly down to poor shot selection. Both batsmen, however, deserve a longer rope as there are few options in first-class cricket - apart from the ageing Wasim Jaffer - to take either of their positions. Shikhar Dhawan, who also failed in the only Test he played, in Cape Town, should be taken to England as a back-up option.
Another concern is Wriddhiman Saha’s fitness, after the best wicketkeeper in the country had to leave South Africa after injuring himself in the first Test. Seeing that he was replaced by Parthiv Patel, and Dinesh Karthik was flown in as a back-up, Saha should be wrapped up in cotton wool until August. In the meantime, the selectors need to look for a more capable understudy to the man from Bengal.
Finally, it is important to get the players ready for the series.
With the exception of the IPL, during which time the players will serve their corporate masters, it will be up to the Board of Control for Cricket in India to decide who will play and who will not. So it will be prudent to rotate the squad, give the players timely breaks but also ensure they remain match-fit.
The tour may be six months away, but the preparations have to begin now.
Updated: February 12, 2018 11:19 PM