As cricket rivalry, it still lags way behind way the Ashes; more for lack of imagination more than anything else. The fascinating and rich political-socio-cultural legacy of India-England relations has unfortunately not been adequately exploited in cricket to the extent it could have.
Let me spotlight some aspects of the trajectory this cricketing relationship to reinforce this point:
- India was a British colony for a few centuries. Cricket was introduced in the country by the British as a form of entertainment for those stationed in India. The spread of cricket was slow to start with but bloomed once locals started to develop skills and temperament for the sport.
- From a socio-political standpoint, Indians initially took to cricket for upward social mobility more than just entertainment and also to prove to the colonial masters – a la the movie Lagaan — that they could be their equals. (Subsequently, excelling in the sport meant patronage, fame, but more importantly jobs and livelihood and in the last half century, superstardom, great fame and wealth too).
- From a cricketing perspective alone, India’s first ever Test was against England (1932), the first-ever Test victory came against England (1951-52). After beating England at the Oval in 1971, India was recognized as a major force in the sport.
- This was a landmark win. Prior to that, England would patronizingly send `B’ teams to India. So many great names in English cricket – May, Trueman, Graveney to name a few – never toured India. Since 1976, the best English players have made themselves available.
- The 1983 World Cup win, which caused a paradigm shift in cricket, was against West Indies. For the final at Lord’s, however, BCCI’s senior administrators were denied extra passes. Miffed, they challenged the status quo in global administration, broke England’s monopoly on the tournament and brought the World Cup to India in 1987.
- In this millennium, and particularly after the IPL came into existence, India has become cricket’s El Dorado. Initially reluctant to allow England players in the league, the English cricket administration, fearing revolt, has tweaked its domestic season to let players participate in the IPL for a large part of the season.
There are countless stirring sagas and riveting narratives which emerge from these and other events that could — and should still — be passed on to fans to strengthen a multi-dimensional long-standing cricket rivalry than can grip cricket fans in both countries,
The dynamics of international cricket is changing rapidly. Already, India versus Australia is nudging the Ashes as the pre-eminent contest in the sport. With Indo-Pak cricket, arguably even bigger than the Ashes, in limbo, cricket between India and England has available to space to fill up.
How the future unravels in this aspect remains to be seen. Purely from a cricketing point of view, the impending series to be a blockbuster, mouthwatering event considering how the two teams have performed in recent weeks.
Even as India were cutting the ground from under Australia, England were handing out Sri Lanka a walloping in the two-Test series, winning both matches by handsome margins.
The whole world has raved about and applauded India’s fantastic win, as it should be. Beating the world’s no. 1 ranked team (toppled to no. 3 after the series) was incredible. Just how difficult it is to beat Australia in Australia comes through from the fact that the defeat at Brisbane was their first on this ground since 1988!
Buoyed by the victory over Australia, in the home series, India will be further fortified by the return of skipper Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma, though Ravidra jadeja and Mohamed Shami will be missed. But then, there is the advantage of playing at home. The last time England toured India, they were hammered 0-4 in the five-Test series.
However, this should not obscure England’s prospects if their performance in Sri Lanka in the past few weeks is anything to go by. Mighty teams in the past have stumbled against on slow, dusty, crumbling Lankan pitches. England this time were well-prepared in batting and bowling to make it hugely rewarding.
Left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya was the highest wicket-taker (15) from either side, yet the only bowler to make any impact on the England batsman. In contrast, England’s bowlers, spinners and pacemen – Anderson, Broad, Wood, Leach, Bess,, all enjoyed success.
The outstanding performer without doubt was Joe Root. As captain, he was aggressive and decisive and as batsman simply brilliant, making centuries in both Tests and at such a rapid clip that it didn’t allow Sri Lanka any scope to escape defeat. He’s sent a reminder to Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Kohli that he’s not out of the race for batting supremacy!
In the context of the series against India, the more important aspect of England’s successful campaign in Sri Lanka was in familiarizing batsmen and bowlers to pitches and conditions in the sub-continent, get over old bogeys and trepidations, so that they play to optimum potential to retain the Pataudi Trophy won in 2018.
Remember, in Sri Lanka England were without Ben Stokes and Joffra Archer, two of their most outstanding performers in the five-day format in the past couple of years. Their presence in India will be a huge boost to their team and a major threat to India.
The backdrop to this series is the World Test Championship in which India have the best percentage points. But England have got themselves a strong chance of reaching the final to be played in mid-2021 if they win handsomely.
India will take the opposition lightly to their own peril.