India-England Test series spiced up by several subplots

Winning the four-match series, which starts on Thursday, is key to the revival of both former No 1-ranked Test teams, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Kevin Pietersen's comeback into the England line-up will be keenly followed during the four-match Test series. Amit Dave / Reuters
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By the end of this series we may not know how good the victor is, but we will have a clearer idea of how poor the vanquished has really become.

Such have been the trials of India and England since they became the world's top-ranked Test sides, a little like the pop star suffering from second-album blues.

So to the neutral, at its core this series is about recalibration, not Indian revenge for the summer of 2011 or the English search for a first series win in India since 1984.

Do not take this the wrong way: both are compelling motivations, but because the mighty have fallen so mightily, it is human nature to know how low they have sunk.

With Australia and South Africa also playing each other, cricket's rankings are currently in delicious disorder. Certainly it has made the ICC go mad sending emails assiduously detailing the many permutations for the three sides aiming to go top.

Their last email outlined nine different situations across both series for England to reach No 1 only leaving out the scenario in which every other Test side ceases to be a Test side.

Beyond all this, where to begin with this series that has so much going on that an anticlimax might not be a bad thing all round?

The headlines are Spin v England. How should they play? How will they play? Can the surfaces turn as much as expected? Does turn even matter, given England struggled mostly with the skid and bounce in the UAE?

Here is the little that is concrete. India do not have a Saeed Ajmal in their attack, but they do have spinners as good as Abdur Rehman and Rangana Herath (the lesser mystery of this pair still managed to flummox 38 English wickets between them across five Tests earlier this year).

On the other side, England have been poor collectively against spin, but they possess individuals who can handle spin competently.

Beyond that it is all fluid conjecture, although the accent may well be on crease occupation rather than pure run scoring, an attritional coming together of two attritional sides.

Underneath, everywhere you look there is something to keep an eye on.

Foremost are the returns of Kevin Pietersen (molecules and convicted criminals can be reintegrated, not batsmen) and maybe Yuvraj Singh, pie-chucked and pie-chucker respectively, together again for more cartoonish capers.

Meanwhile, right across the Indian batting line-up – old openers, new middle order and Sachin Tendulkar – one question will suffice, albeit in slightly modified constructions: can they still cut it? Can they cut it? Can he still cut it?

Even of Alastair Cook, on his first tour as full-time Test captain, a similar question could be asked.

India is where his senior career began, a matter-of-fact century on debut in 2006 signalling the start of a career so choir-boyishly dutiful and colourlessly prodigious that one day he will be the daddy of all Test batting records and we will be left asking ourselves how and when he did it.

Graeme Swann is also returning to the scene of his international debut, now with a perceptible but not yet alarming dip in returns.

It has unhinged England's attack just enough for it to loosen up its hitherto constrictive, menacing preponderance.

India is not the place for attacking off-spinners to regain form, but Swann, cricketer and man, is an outlier and India's batting is not what it used to be.

Other than Virat Kohli that is, who has looked as destined for greatness this year as any young batsmen in years.

He is already a superstar but as he stands at the foot of a very long, crowded road, this series appears at just the right moment for him, in the familiarity of home, against a very good pace attack, with greater responsibility.

Too many other stories to keep a tab on; the overworked MS Dhoni's captaincy; the Zimbabwean coaching shoot-out between one inscrutable and one invisible; Harbhajan Singh's return; the arrival of Nick Compton (no pressure from being Denis's grandson, none whatsoever) as an opening partner for Cook; Ian Bell's on again, off again claims to greatness; Zaheer Khan's bandaged body; the potency of England's pace bowlers after a poor summer.

A shame though, thanks to the stand-off between the Board of Control for Cricket in India and Sky television, that the sequel to the tete-a-tete between pundits Nasser Hussain and Ravi Shastri from last summer over the Decision Review System (DRS) is unlikely. Do expect, however, the DRS to feature prominently in this crowd.

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