x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Two giants have fallen, one will rise

Both teams have fallen off the perch since their recent halcyon days at the top of the Test rankings. After years of forgettable contests, we may finally see a nail-biter.

Indian cricket players, from left, Pragyan Ojha, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh, attend a practice session in Mumbai ahead of the Test with England.
Indian cricket players, from left, Pragyan Ojha, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh, attend a practice session in Mumbai ahead of the Test with England.

It is over 80 years since India played their first Test match, against England at Lord's in June 1932.

They lost by 158 runs, due in no small measure to two splendid innings (79 and 85 not out) from Douglas Jardine, who was a few months away from envisaging the Bodyline tactics that would win the Ashes and cause a diplomatic crisis.

With the Maharajas sitting out, CK Nayudu led India, and there were enough signs over the three days that the "jewel of the Empire" might one day have a team capable of taking on the best. "It can be said at once that the Indian cricketers, and especially Amar Singh and Nissar, bowled splendidly, while from start to finish their fielding reached a very high level indeed," said a report in the Wisden Almanack.

Two years later, when England became the first side to tour India, the Mumbai-born Jardine led England for the final time. He and Hedley Verity, the legendary left-arm spinner, were the famous names in that side, and it would be a long while before India saw England's A-list cricketers again.

It took India considerable time to find their feet in the international arena. There are few more famous cricket images than the picture of the scoreboard at Headingley in 1952, when Fred Trueman and Alec Bedser reduced India to 0 for 4.

Coming just four months after the country's inaugural Test win - against England in Chennai - it was a humiliation that coloured perceptions of Indian cricket for years to come.

Trueman, Bedser, Len Hutton, Walter Hammond and Peter May never once toured India, and Denis Compton played a Ranji Trophy final for Holkar, but no Tests.

Even in the early 1970s, by which time India had won their first series in England (1971), it was Tony Lewis who led a far from full-strength side to the subcontinent.

The West Indies sent Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Wes Hall and other greats. Australian titans such as Ray Lindwall, Neil Harvey and Richie Benaud graced Indian fields. The absence of England's finest would be an open sore for a long time and led to much needle when the team did visit.

Even since Bhagwat Chandrasekhar's beguiling wrist-spin variations - teammates nicknamed his quicker delivery Mill Reef after that year's English Derby winner - inspired victory at The Oval in 1971, India have usually been a match for England both home and away. Until the 4-0 whitewash in the summer of 2011 that saw the No 1 ranking change hands, the head-to-head record since 1971 was 15-16.

These days, what animosity there is exists off the field, with the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the England and Wales Cricket Board losing no opportunity to pull each other down a peg or two. Sections of the ECB bitterly resent India's position as the game's commercial hub, while certain luminaries of the BCCI never miss a chance to "give it back" to the former masters.

On the field, there have been few great games to give the rivalry a genuine edge. India and Australia have played out some memorable Tests. Against England, there has been a scarcity of close contests. Even when India chased down 387 - no team had scored more than 276 to win a Test in India before that - in Chennai four years ago, there was a surreal lack of tension on the final afternoon, such was the ease with which Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh batted after Virender Sehwag's initial blitz (83 off 68 balls).

Both teams have fallen off the perch since their recent halcyon days at the top of the Test rankings, and this series is a contest between a side in transition, India, and one that needs to convince the critics and itself that it can negotiate the turning ball. After years of forgettable contests, we may finally see a nail-biter.

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