India preparations leave England in a spin, but for captain Cook's charges the warm-up has barely begun
12:41 GMT, 13 November 2012
A fortnight in India is usually enough for the wide-eyed tourist to get his bearings. Some need a little longer. But for England's cricketers – 10 of whom are on their first Test tour here – time has now run out.
Ten days of warm-up cricket have, it's true, brought some reward. There have been five hundreds and 10 fifties, and not a single member of the Test top seven can reasonably fret about being out of nick. It is hard to recall an England trip quite like it.
But the effect has been almost unreal, like sitting a mock exam with the answers laid out in front of you. Because, as you will have noticed unless you've only just returned from a holiday on Pluto, England's exposure to top-rank spin has been strictly limited.
Final preparations: England begin their Test series against India in decent shape
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The Indian teams have been well within their rights, of course. The days when tourists were given a proper workout ahead of the Tests are gone now that Australia no longer have the same depth. And there are times when county cricket ought to be ashamed of the XIs it fields against our guests.
Yet the upshot is that we are no closer to knowing whether England's achilles heel – everyone's favourite Trojan War hero has been clocking up the name-checks of late – has been properly plastered over.
It's not just that the best spinner they have faced has been Amit Mishra, who ascribed his bowling of only 17.1 overs out of 193.3 for Haryana partly to a sore finger.
But England are yet to bat on a pitch that has been anything other than flat, nor older than three and a bit days. The true test will come on a fifth-day crumbler against Ravi Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, with Ashwin already talking darkly of a mystery ball – another pre-England-series staple these days in the grand manner of Shane Warne and Saeed Ajmal.
England have done all they can in the circumstances, chalking up totals of 426, 345 for 9, 149 for 2, 521 and 254 for 7 (when several of their wickets were thrown away ahead of a declaration). It's just possible that India may come to regret allowing all of their batsmen to find their groove. As own-goals go, it would be spectacular.
Yet for all the focus on spin, there are other issues to resolve. For a start, England are yet to encounter anything approaching the skill of Zaheer Khan or the pace of Umesh Yadav, who are likely to share the new ball for India – at least until Zaheer's next injury crisis.
Their own bowling attack is hardly a picture of fighting fitness itself. Steven Finn – to his chagrin – is out of the reckoning after failing to bowl at training on Tuesday morning, while Stuart Broad is set to play in the Ahmedabad Test, starting on Thursday, after sending down only 10 first-class overs on tour.
The phrase 'not ideal' has become de rigueur in press conferences. It may be erring on the side of generosity.
Neither has Graeme Swann been fine-tuned to the degree England would like. To the relief of everyone, not least the Swann family, his baby daughter Charlotte recovered well enough for her dad to return to India on Monday morning. But since bowling 23 overs on the opening day of the tour's curtain-raiser against India A, he has sent down only a further five.
Mo problems: The batsmen are in good nick… but are yet to face the frontline spinners
In the meantime, Monty Panesar has bowled 66. Panesar could yet be an outside bet for a place in a four-man attack ahead of Tim Bresnan, yet the balance of so many aspects of England's game depends rather more on Swann.
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It's not just the bowling attack. The retirement of Andrew Strauss means Swann is now England's banker in the slips, standing at second early on, then ousting Alastair Cook to become the lone slip when the ball gets older (although Jonathan Trott, and not Jimmy Anderson, will take the spot when Swann or Samit Patel are bowling).
Cook's fallibility – his miss of Alviro Petersen at Headingley arguably cost England their No 1 ranking – and the fact that the third-slip position will depend on who is bowling, both place extra pressure on Swann to catch everything that comes his way.
And that may just sum up England's predicament. India may have a few issues of their own, but Cook needs to wring every last drop of perspiration and inspiration from his team if they are to stand a chance. Really, the warm-up has barely begun.
Sitting it out: Finn is expected to miss the first Test in Ahmedabad
EVEREST COMPETITION WINNERS
Last week we asked you to name the member of the England tour party who climbed to Everest base camp five years ago. As most of you knew, it was Nick Compton.
But there are only three lucky winners of a copy of Alan Curr's new book: Cricket on Everest: The Inspirational Story of the World’s Highest Cricket Match. Congratulations to John Bartlett, Mark Klein and Duncan MacKenzie.
THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS
Full marks to the Indian brains trust, whose attempts to remind England of their fallibility against spin at every, ahem, turn, even extended during the bore-draw against Haryana to the press conferences.
On the second evening, the 22-year-old off-spinner Jayant Yadav was impressively quick to make the point that England had been 'very uncomfortable' against him, a view based on his contention that they had been quick to use their feet (damned if you do, damned if you don't).
In a spin: Yadav says England struggled against him in the Haryana warm-up
Yadav's assault was almost as withering as England's on the Haryana bowling during their first-innings 521 at 4.4 an over. And yet there was a point amid the propaganda. Against Yadav and the leg-spin of Amit Mishra, England lost 8 for 177. Against Haryana's four seamers, it was 1 for 332.
Gavaskar plays down the hype
Duncan Fletcher once made the point that it is always sad when a good wine goes sour. He was talking about Sunil Gavaskar. The Top Spin couldn't possibly comment, except to say that Gavaskar's columns in the Times of India do a consistently fine job of proving Fletcher’s point.
In his latest one, a bizarre screed in which he argues that a three-Test series has more chance of producing a result than a four-Test series, Gavaskar writes: 'The India-England series has been over-hyped, as is the case with any series involving England.' Pots and kettles, Sunny, pots and kettles…
After attending our first Ranji Trophy match in Mumbai the other week, the Top Spin now cannot get enough. And some of the scorecards in the recent round of games made for eye-watering reading.
The stattos at Tamil Nadu (538 for 4) v Karnataka (562 for 6) would have enjoyed themselves, but not half as much as those who sat through Maharashtra (764 for 6) against Uttar Pradesh (528 for 5).
Master blaster: Tendulkar at the crease during a Ranji Trophy match – but the big runs were scored by others
But our favourite has to be Gujarat against Saurashtra. Gujarat had done pretty well to make 600 for 9. Or so they thought. Because Saurashtra responded with a merciless 716 for 3, which included a third-wicket stand of 539 between Sagar Jogiyani (carelessly run out for 282) and Ravindra Jadeja, who finished unbeaten on 303.
The partnership takes its place in the top ten highest stands for any wicket in first-class history.
The most unsettling part of last week's story about former Australian batsman Greg Ritchie's use of a racist epithet during a lunch-time speech at the Gabba Members' Club was that no one had complained before.
'I have told the story 500 times during the course of my speaking career,' said Ritchie. 'I do it verbatim.' Tasteless and unoriginal – it's some double whammy.