It is never easy to predict the chances of any visiting side against the home team in England; even more so when it is a sub-continent team.
It boils down to how well the visiting batters adept to the movement both in the air and off the wicket, and also, how well the visitors balance their team to meet the requirements of changing conditions.
That is what must be bugging this Indian side at the start of the Pataudi Trophy series, starting today at Trent Bridge.
In Australia, India announced their playing XI on the eve of the first Test; not so here.
India lost 1-4 last time they played England in England, though the contest was far closer than the scoreline would suggest.
India had chances to win at least two Tests and win the series. They lost a few sessions which turned the game.
Or perhaps fair to say that Sam Curran was the difference; a small difference, but a telling one.
Will India be ready this time to stop the flow of the game turning away from them?
The current Indian squad is similar to the one that toured in 2018. The nucleus of Indian batting is still the same.
So, while on one hand they may be looking forward to changing the outcome of the series, there is also a possibility of residual trauma from that result.
Every team, especially one playing at the highest level, is up for the encounter at the start. However, when the game starts going away from them, even the champions struggle. This is when the old wounds can open up with a sense of déjà vu, especially if the majority of the team members are unchanged.
This was the factor that perhaps helped India down under; a sense of nothing to lose after the debacle of 36 all out and the loss of key players.
The newcomers came into the team with vigour and verve rather than the baggage of the defeat, and this was not expected by the Aussies, who were perhaps consumed with their success.
I believe it was that attitude of the bench players, who got a chance of a lifetime to get the India cap, and to show what it meant to them, that changed the complexion of the series.
It was that attitude which helped Indian cricket team to record its finest ever overseas series win in its history.
But in England, the experienced old hands are back. Often, that would be considered a boon.
While I won’t say that it is exactly a bane, it may work against Indian team unless the experienced batters are able to change their plan.
While it is hard to displace experienced batters like Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane – and there is no one on the bench who is breaking the door down to get in – the Indian top order has not been exactly firing overseas.
There have been a few good knocks but collectively, the No.3, 4 and 5 of Indian top order have had ordinary outings by their standards.
While these three are champion batters, I am sure this fact would be nagging them. Will they use this as motivation or will they succumb to the pressure? The pressure of having a great opportunity to beat England in England; perhaps the best ever.
Perhaps, that is one thing that Joe Root and his boys would be banking upon to continue their dominance over their rivals at home.
England’s batting looks inexperienced in terms of number of Test matches, but these guys have plenty of experience of playing in their own conditions, which should help.
England will look at their skipper to anchor the innings, as their top three are still settling into their Test careers.
The withdrawal of Ben Stokes couldn’t have come at a worse time for England. His crucial runs down the order and ability to provide wicket-taking spells in the middle of the innings will be sorely missed.
Remember, it was the inability of the Indian team to knock over the lower order that changed the complexion of the series between these two in 2018.
India has already got an advantage here; to some extent similar to what they had against Aussies in 2017-18 down under without Steve Smith and David Warner. How well India can utilise this gain will be the key.
So, on paper, with Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer unavailable, India is looking stronger. Much the same as when India visited New Zealand in 2020.
The only difference here is that due to the series lasting five Tests, India will have ample opportunity to come back if they do not start well.
However, they are beginning their campaign at the ground where they won the only Test match in the 2018 series.
So, that should be psychological boon to the team. However, they have a problem of balance. The main point being: do they go with four seamers and one spinner, or three seamers and two spinners?
The conundrum for them is that both their bowling all-rounders are spinners. Also, the fact that both are extremely good and in-form players, which makes it hard to drop one of them for the fourth seamer.
In 2018, when India won at Trent Bridge, it was Hardik Pandya who got a five-for in the first innings and Jasprit Bumrah got a five-for in the second.
The pitch and conditions point to the presence of seamers being more beneficial. However, that leaves the Indian lower order very vulnerable, which could be crucial in the final analysis.
It was evident even in the single Test India has played on this tour so far (the WTC final against New Zealand) that their batters didn’t put enough runs on the board for their bowlers to win.
Also, they have a question mark over the stability of the opening pair. With Shubman Gill’s withdrawal, the opening pair is likely to be unsettled.
Add to that another important fact: Rohit Sharma will open the batting in red-ball cricket for the first time in England. That is never easy.
While Rohit has plenty of experience opening the batting in white-ball cricket, he will face the most destructive red-ball bowling pair under these conditions. That represents maximum degree of difficulty.
Rohit, as one of the experienced players, like his colleagues down the order, will need to use this as motivation.
The crucial question India would be pondering on the eve of the Test match is: do they shore up their batting by having both spinning all-rounders play or strengthen their swing bowling?
India tried the first strategy in the WTC final against New Zealand and their batting still failed.
Will they change their plans because of that? I don’t think so. I believe the reason Indian batting failed was that they did not prepare well for this crucial Test match.
To play a Test match without playing a first class game in England is like shooting yourself in the foot.
Since then, even though Indian batters have had only a single first class game, they had lot more time to adjust to English conditions. That will make them comfortable about their batting coming good on the day.
Considering that the series is starting towards the latter part of the summer, there is always a possibility for spinners to play a role, at least in the third and fourth innings.
Considering that, I doubt Indian team management will drop Ravichandran Ashwin for a swing bowler like Shardul Thakur.
Ravindra Jadeja is slightly ahead of Ash in the slot of the all-rounder, so it looks like India will stay with the same combination they had for the WTC final.
The only possible question is about inclusion of the pace bowler Mohammad Siraj. He may be getting impatient sitting on the bench, chafing at the bit.
After leading the bowling unit brilliantly in the last Test at the Gabba, he played two more Test matches in India. I thought he was more impressive than Ishant Sharma, even on less responsive wickets.
He could be that attitude factor that Indian bowling unit will need if they go with three seamers. Ishant had an injury during the WTC finals but has pulled up well. However, it would be the correct time to give the youngster a chance.
My XI for the first Test
Virat Kohli (c)
India has a great chance to win the Pataudi Trophy 3-1.