Their reputation in tatters after two humiliating defeats, injury-ravaged India face an arduous task to retain their number one status when they go into the third Test against England on Wednesday with serious concerns over the form of their famed batsmen.
Down 0-2 in the four-match series, India would be stripped of their number one ranking in the ICC charts if England beat them in this match. Even otherwise, England just have to draw both or win one of the matches to clinch the top spot.
Given England’s resounding wins thus far, India’s revival looks difficult after a spate of injuries — the latest being the ankle and hamstring problem of pace spearhead Zaheer Khan which has ruled him out of the entire series.
With limited bowling resources at his disposal, Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni will look up to his fit-again openers to quell the charge of England’s bowlers and reduce the 2-0 deficit.
The Indian team management will have to give a good thought to the composition of the team considering the conditions at Edgbaston.
With Harbhajan Singh ruled out, leg-spinner Amit Mishra may get the nod while Ishant Sharma, Praveen Kumar and Munaf Patel may have to shoulder the pace bowling responsibilities.
Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, India’s most successful opening pair ever with 3551 runs at 59.18 per innings, once again come together to lead India’s resistance against a rampant England attack on a green Edgbaston pitch over the next five days.
Recent history shows no visiting team ever does well in England without a successful opening pair and so the onus is squarely on the two Delhiites to stem the rot and keep India’s status, however tenuous, intact as world’s best Test side.
When India beat England 1-0 in the 2007 series, openers Dinesh Karthik and Wasim Jaffer were pivotal with 322 runs together at 53.67 per innings.
In 2008 when England were last beaten at home, it was the South African opening pair of Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie who were the bedrock of Proteas’ success.
England need a 2-0 or 3-1 margin to displace India at the top and the hosts realise the best way to do it is to keep India’s batting under the weather.
The six Tests India have played this year, all abroad, only serve to illustrate the point. Only once Sehwag and Gambhir have played together this year and India could cross 300 runs in an innings at Cape Town.
In the remaining five Tests, without the duo being around, India have only once managed a 300-plus score.
Such is the reliance on them that inconvenient questions stand no chance to keep them apart – the fact that both are returning from injuries or that it was young Abhinav Mukund who smashed a century against Northamptonshire while the famous Delhi duo failed last week.
If the two succeed, it could lay the platform for a unique achievement which awaits Rahul Dravid.
No batsman in the history, other than Sir Donald Bradman, has hit three successive Test centuries twice on a tour of England.
Dravid did so once in 2002 and now, with two centuries in the first two Tests, he is on the cusp of a rare honour.
The 100th international century by Sachin Tendulkar is another motivation which could serve the Indians well.
Tendulkar was laid low by sickness at Lord’s and in the second innings at Trent Bridge, support from the other end could have got him past the line.
His big moment would arrive sooner than later but if it does at Edgbaston, Indians would be better off it.
However, Indians are up against an England attack which has allowed an opposition team score in excess of 400 only thrice in 32 innings of last 16 Tests.
Eleven of these matches have resulted in win for England and only two in losses. Significantly, in these 16 Tests, England’s set of bowlers have all averaged less than 30 with the ball.
If India can get past England’s bowling, it is the hosts’ daunting batting which they have to come to terms with.
Even without the success of their openers, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, England have made around 500 once in both the previous Tests.
In the past 10 Tests, Cook averages 84 while Ian Bell 90. England have managed five double hundreds in the past 14 months, including Kevin Pietersen’s 202 at Lord’s last month.
England’s lower order is so good it could easily swap positions with the top order. The bottom four at Trent Bridge have Test averages of 37.85, 29.02, 23.52 and 11.74.
It’s not just the runs but the speed with which they get them is equally rattling. Graeme Swann’s strike rate of 81.71 is the highest in English annals of batsmen with over 500 Test runs.
The ones of Matt Prior and Stuart Broad are also in the top five.
It would appear that Dhoni and his men have finally met their match and the charismatic Indian captain would have to do better than 146 runs from his last 10 Test innings.
The fact that if he picks up three catches at Edgbaston he goes past Syed Kirmani’s Indian record of 198 dismissals is unlikely to cheer him up much.
The series is also a bad induction for coach Duncan Fletcher in the Indian firmament.
The Zimbabwe-born coach is unable to halt the slide of Indians even as his counterpart Andy Flower basks at his success ratio — played 29 Tests, won 18 and lost just four.
Indians probably would include Pragyan Ojha as a lone spinner to go with the three medium-pace trio of S Sreesanth, Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar.
England: Andrew Strauss (captain), Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Eoin Morgan, Matt Prior (wk), Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, James Anderson, Tim Bresnan.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain & wk), Gautam Gambhir, Abhinav Mukund, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Suresh Raina, Pragyan Ojha, Praveen Kumar, R P Singh, Ishant Sharma, Amit Mishra, Munaf Patel, Wriddhiman Saha, S Sreesanth.
Match starts at 3:30 PM IST.