MS Dhoni has a score to settle
LONDON // After a summer of woe, India turn up at The Oval today with only pride to play for.
The No 1 ranking has been surrendered and a vaunted batting line-up has been humiliated three times in succession.
MS Dhoni, who arrived in England on the back of a World Cup win and a 15-3 record as captain of the Test team, has the task of coaxing a performance from a side that has been largely abject, save for defiance shown by Rahul Dravid and Praveen Kumar.
"We were not really sleeping, so we don't need a wake-up call," said Dhoni, when asked about three consecutive defeats.
"I think the past two years have been great. You have to look to the future, but at the same time, it's important not to panic."
The last time India's Test side sunk so low, in 1999/2000 when a 3-0 whitewash in Australia was followed by two home defeats to a Hansie Cronje-led South Africa, the cricket board responded by making Sourav Ganguly captain.
Later that year, largely on the basis of a glowing recommendation from Dravid - who had played under him at Kent - John Wright became the first foreigner to coach the national side.
Duncan Fletcher, who helped turned around English fortunes a decade ago, is the fourth non-Indian to have the job.
Two, Wright and Gary Kirsten, were lauded as game-changers when they left.
The third, Greg Chappell, departed after the World Cup debacle in 2007, leaving behind a fractured side that began the climb back to respectability on the successful tour of England later that year.
Some former greats, such as Sunil Gavaskar and Anil Kumble, have pinpointed India's lack of athleticism as one of the prime reasons for the defeat.
Dhoni, while admitting that fielding was not his team's strongest suit, focused on the lack of big scores by his batsmen, and said: "We have not put many runs on board which I felt is very important to give the bowlers the liberty of trying things out."
India have not scored 400 in an innings since the second innings at Centurion in South Africa last year - eight Tests ago - and only one man, Dravid, has averaged more than 40 in this series. England have six averaging more than 50, and a seventh, Eoin Morgan, who scored a century in the last game.
"They are a very good side," Dhoni said. "They have got four bowlers who are very good, three seamers and a spinner who look very settled. They also have a batting line-up that bats really deep, with [Stuart] Broad coming at nine."
Taking 20 wickets will again be a headache for India, though Praveen, who has 15 from three Tests, looks set to play despite taking a painful blow on the thumb at Edgbaston in Birmingham.
The one bowling change is likely to see Munaf Patel come in for Sreesanth. RP Singh, who was called up after Zaheer Khan's tour-ending injuries, looked less than fully fit and barely bowled in the nets.
Despite several pundits asking for Suresh Raina to be dropped after his travails this summer, he is likely to be given one more chance.
Virat Kohli, a replacement, did not have the best debut series in the Caribbean, scoring an aggregate of 76 runs and looking distinctly uncomfortable against the short ball.
If India are to challenge this England side, they will need a big partnership from Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, who have gone past at least 50 on 29 occasions in 65 innings.
The Oval has a special place in India's cricket history. It was here, four decades ago, that they won their first Test in England, with Bhagwat Chandrasekhar's six for 38 the key factor in the success against a Ray Illingworth-led side that had won the Ashes in Australia the previous winter.
Dhoni appears to accept his team are not England's equals in the field, and is phlegmatic about their current all-round struggles.
"We have a few limitations when it comes to fielding. But overall when it comes to preparation, we gave it the same shot as the English side," he said.
"If you only achieve success then it becomes quite easy for you in life. It's the failures and the challenges that make life interesting."
After a summer when his men have hardly turned up, this game offers quite a challenge.
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Published: August 18, 2011 04:00 AM